Prognosis and prescription for poor readers

Diverse Elementary ClassDo children who are poor readers and writers in first grade tend to remain poor readers and writers throughout school? If so, what factors keep them from improving?

A four-year study conducted by Connie Juel, of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas, was set up to determine the answers to these questions. According to this research group’s findings, the chances of a poor first-grade reader remaining a poor reader by the end of fourth grade were very high.

Phonemic awareness poor

The report states that a high percentage of children who remained poor readers had entered the first grade with little phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is a term which describes the understanding that words are composed of sequences of meaningless yet more or less distinct sounds. It includes the ability to hear sound sequences in words, to hear rhymes and the ability to recognize that a word is composed of sounds that blend or overlap.

Phonemic blending appears to be a prerequisite to learning to read and early development of this ability (by first grade) appears to be critical to later success in reading. Juel’s study found that children who entered the first grade with poor phonemic awareness had not acquired the decoding skills by the end of the fourth grade that good readers demonstrated at the beginning of second grade.

Juel’s team examined literacy development at a large elementary school in an economically disadvantaged community in which 26% of the children were Anglo, 31% were Black, and 45% Hispanic. Researchers followed 54 of these children from first through fourth grade in order to study the acquisition of written language skills.

Differences in way English used at home

In Juel’s study, minority students from economically disadvantaged families were more likely than Anglo students from comparable backgrounds to have little phonemic awareness of the standard English used in the classroom.

She speculates that this may be the result of differences between the English used at home and the English used at school, as well as cultural differences; the amount of time, for example, spent in word play, reading books or hearing nursery rhymes. (Juel cites a British study which, after controlling for I.Q. and socio-economic status, showed a strong relationship between a child’s early knowledge of nursery rhymes and later development of phonological skill.)

The children Juel studied for four years were taught with a basal reader series supplemented by a local phonics program. Each child was pre-tested and post-tested on their phonemic awareness and decoding skills, basic reading, math and spelling achievement, listening comprehension, and writing skills. I.Q. was estimated using the Vocabulary and Block Design subtests of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (see the original research paper for a detailed description of the tests used and the resulting data).

Results of the Juel study show that students who scored in the lowest 25% of reading skills on the first grade pre-test were very likely to remain in the lowest 25% four years later. Poor fourth grade readers tended to have either inadequate decoding or poor listening skills. In contrast, poor early writers did not necessarily remain poor writers. However, those poor writers who were also poor readers in first grade tended to remain poor writers at the end of fourth grade.

Less exposure to words

Poor decoding appears to prevent children from reading enough text – both in and outside of school – to improve their skills. By the end of first grade, good readers, on the average, had read 18,681 words in their basal reader texts compared to 9,975 words for children in the lowest reading group.

This discrepancy in exposure to words grows each year. Thus, poor readers have progressively less opportunity to develop a rich knowledge of vocabulary, concepts and ideas from their reading which, in turn, affects the development of their spelling and writing proficiency.

Significantly, Juel reports that age of entry into formal school reading instruction – whether at 5, 6 or 7 years of age – was not a critical factor in the level of reading achievement.

Juel concludes that success in beginning reading appears critical to later proficiency and that phonemic awareness forms the basis for such beginning reading skills as decoding and blending. Juel’s evidence indicates that if decoding skill is delayed, it is difficult to change the course of a child’s reading achievement. Her research supports the concept of the “vicious cycle” for poor readers.

Therefore, for children who are having difficulty with learning to decode, every effort should be made both to keep them motivated to learn and to keep up their listening comprehension. Reading aloud to these children seems to be the best way to accomplish this.

Juel reports that other studies (Calfie and Piontkowski, 1981) have indicated that teaching methods can affect or change the outcome for poor first grade readers. (Unfortunately, the process by which the instructional program at one school successfully helped poor first grade readers become good second grade readers remains unknown).

In another study, Clay (1979) showed that 6-year-old children who could not hear the sound sequences in words and, therefore, were not successful in beginning reading, could be taught to analyze the sound sequence of words. This phonemic awareness training is now part of Clay’s Reading Recovery Program.

However, based on her study of schools which use basal reader series and standard phonics programs, Juel recommends making certain that children learn to decode in first grade. She believes that exposure to nursery rhymes, word and rhyming games, as well as reading and discussing stories in preschool and kindergarten, will do more to ensure decoding skills than early formal instruction in phonics. Children do not appear to benefit significantly from phonics instruction until they develop some phonemic awareness.

Juel suggests that economically disadvantaged or culturally deprived children, as well as those whose first language is not English, may need greater training in phonemic awareness. It is important, she maintains, that we do not wait to teach phonemic awareness until children experience difficulty with beginning reading.

Therefore, activities which develop phonemic awareness need to be stressed in preschool and kindergarten. It is much more difficult, she concludes, to improve students’ reading in later years. Indeed, attempts in later years to teach comprehension through vocabulary development and thinking strategies have, thus far, largely been unsuccessful.

“Learning To Read And Write: A Longitudinal Study of 54 Children From First Through Fourth Grades” Journal of Educational Psychology December 1988 Volume 80 Number 4 pp. 437-447.

Published in ERN September/October 1989 Volume 2 Number 4

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