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Preventing Early Reading Failure

Would you go to a doctor who did not believe in blood tests or regular mammograms? Or a dentist who had not heard of floss? Of course not. We expect healthcare providers to keep up on new research not only in treating diseases, but in preventing them. We expect to get regular checkups to assess our health, to get tips on diet and exercise even when our overall health is good, and to get diagnostic tests if a checkup raises a red flag. Even though we don't always follow the doctor's orders, the preventive model of medicine has been wildly successful, allowing us to live longer, healthier lives.

In recent years, reading researchers have pursued a preventive model of reading instruction that could also be wildly successful. It took a lot of work on a lot of fronts: Could reading problems really be detected in their early stages? Could simple, practical assessments be developed that could be used in a classroom setting? If a reading problem was detected, could it actually be averted? And, if so, with what "treatment"?

Today, hundreds of studies later, it is possible to screen all children for weaknesses in reading development, diagnose reading problems as early as kindergarten, and deliver intensive, data-driven treatments such that 94 to 98 percent of early elementary children can reach reading levels in the average range for their grade, creating the foundation for more advanced reading.

The articles that follow provide a glimpse of the research undergirding this preventive model of reading instruction. They also discuss the new "technologies" (especially preventive screening assessments and strong curriculum materials) now available to teachers that translate this research into useable classroom materials and strategies.

It should go without saying, but nonetheless needs to be said clearly: The research and materials discussed here focus mainly on the early reading skills that produce accurate, fluent reading—and are fundamental to later comprehension. But while these early skills are absolutely necessary to reading comprehension, they are not sufficient to propel the high level of reading comprehension and enjoyment that is the goal of reading instruction. Reaching that goal requires, additionally, strong background knowledge and vocabulary, as well as comprehension skills. For a fuller discussion of reading comprehension and the knowledge that undergirds it, see the Spring 2003 issue of American Educator.

In any debate on reading instruction that counterposes a focus on skills with a focus on enjoyment—or that pits phonological skills against the knowledge necessary to comprehend grade-level material—there is only one good answer: Kids need both. Schools that drop history and science from their curriculum to "make room" for more reading instruction—or who fail to incorporate strong content in their core reading program—do so at the expense of their students' long-term reading comprehension.

Fluent decoding is not the entirety of reading instruction. But, without it, all else falters; and the knowledge exists to teach it well. If we put that knowledge into practice in our early-grade classrooms, our current discussions about whether or not to retain third-graders who still aren't reading would be less constant, less necessary, and less freighted. We have the tools to teach reading right the first time, so let's do it.