One outcome of the "reading wars" between the phonics and whole language advocates was the tremendous growth of research in the area of teaching young children how to read English. Congress created the National Reading Panel (NRP) and charged it with the task of evaluating different approaches used to teach children to read and assessing the effectiveness of each. The NRP was an outgrowth of the National Institutes of Health.
The NRP issued a report in April 2000 called Teaching Children to Read. In the report, the NRP presented a summary of the research in eight areas of reading instruction and literacy, which have been called the five dimensions of reading:
- Alphabetics, including phonemic awareness instruction and phonics instruction;
- Fluency, including guided oral reading and silent independent reading;
- Comprehension, including vocabulary instruction, text comprehension instruction, and teacher preparation and comprehension strategies instruction;
- Teacher education and reading instruction; and
- Computer-assisted instruction.
The report found that teaching phonemic awareness to young children significantly improves their reading skill. It also improves spelling skill in students without reading disabilities. Explicit, systematic phonics instruction was found to produce “significant benefits” for K-6 students and for struggling readers. It also improves the spelling ability of good readers across all grade levels, particularly for the youngest elementary students.
Fluency is a critical skill in reading comprehension. A reader who is fluent can read orally at a reasonable rate with accuracy, properly expressing the written words aloud. Guided oral reading was found by the NRP to produce a “significant and positive impact” on fluency, including word recognition and reading comprehension, across grade levels. There was no distinction between skilled readers and struggling readers in the degree of benefit of this instructional strategy. Interestingly, the Panel was unable to establish a positive correlation between extensive employment of independent silent reading and improved reading achievement, including fluency, despite the widespread use of this strategy.
Vocabulary instruction was determined to produce gains in reading comprehension, but the NRP noted that methods must be “appropriate to the age and ability of the reader.” The Panel further emphasized that vocabulary must be taught both directly and indirectly. The NRP found specific benefits from teaching reading comprehension techniques in combination, although questions remain as to which strategies are best employed with particular age groups of children. Teacher preparation was found to be needed in the form of extensive, formal instruction, as early as possible, in order to provide optimum training for teachers in using reading comprehension strategies.
The NRP found only a few experimental studies examining the effectiveness of teacher education and reading instruction, leading the Panel to call for additional research in several areas of this issue.
Finally, the report discusses the 21 studies that were available regarding the effectiveness of computer-assisted reading instruction. While one should refrain from drawing conclusions from such a small amount of research, all of the studies did suggest positive results in the use of computers in reading instruction, whether presenting text via computer, using computers as word processors to combine reading and writing instruction, or using hypertext (highlighted words and phrases that link to definitions or related passages).