• The Spark

What Are the Factors That Contribute to Reading Failure?

Author:  Laurie E. Cutting, Ph.D.  | 04/11/2017

Despite decades of research that has focused on how to ensure all children become adequate readers, the rate of reading failure in the Unites States remains high—and instruction to promote reading development is a primary concern for both general and special educators. According to the last National Assessment of Educational Progress, 31 and 24 percent of 4th and 8th graders, respectively, are performing at Below Basic levels (NAEP, 2015). This means, for example, that a 4th grader performing at this level isn’t able to find details in a text that support simple interpretations. These are clearly fundamental life skills that are important for future employment and attaining higher-level education.

There are various factors that lead to reading failure, including impoverished exposure to language and early literacy activities, lack of adequate instruction, and/or more biologically based risk factors. While there are ongoing research efforts in all three areas, I’d like to address the two most relevant to K–12 reading educators: instruction and markers for at-risk readers.

Decades of research, particularly in early reading instruction, has resulted in clear, scientifically based approaches to reading instruction. These rely on explicitly and systematically teaching children sound-symbol relationships, or what is commonly referred to as phonics. However, it should be noted that teaching phonics does not mean that exposure to rich literature and meaningful oral language experiences that support comprehension should be forsaken; rather, there needs to be a focus on both phonics and comprehension-related activities.

Incorporate Phonics and Phonological Awareness: Vital Skills for All Beginning Readers

Interestingly, the realization that phonics was a necessary—but not sufficient—component of reading in part has its origins in trying to pinpoint the characteristics of and instructional approaches for struggling readers, especially those with dyslexia. Specifically, children with dyslexia have difficulty with learning sound-symbol relationships. In other words, their reading challenges originate with fundamental word-level difficulties: not being able to “sound out” the words in text then leads to struggles in reading comprehension. Further research determined that phonological awareness, or one’s awareness of and ability to manipulate the sound structure of oral language, is a substantial predictor of these word-level difficulties. (J.G. Elliott & E.L. Grigorenko (2014). The dyslexia debate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.) An example of a phonological awareness activity is a child’s ability to say “cat” without the /k/ sound. The reason this skill is so important is that once a child learns to segment sounds in a word orally, they can then take these sounds and map them onto their orthographic (letter) counterparts. As it turns out, the large-scale studies on dyslexia also discovered something else important: what works for those with dyslexia is also quite important for reading development in general. Thus, today we know that any beginning reading program needs to systematically incorporate phonological awareness and phonics instruction.

A Family History of Reading Struggles May Play a Role

So, what are the markers for children at-risk for reading problems, particularly dyslexia? As probably can be inferred from above, poor phonological awareness, which can be tested long before children enter school, is one marker. Another concerning sign is if children are struggling with learning sound-symbol relationships when they begin to read. Finally, one of the best predictors we know of for future reading problems is if one or more relatives, particularly parents, struggled with reading themselves. Why is this case? Because reading difficulties have a large biological component–in other words, reading difficulties run in families, and having a parent who has struggled with reading puts a child at risk genetically for also having reading problems. Understanding these signs that put children at risk for reading problems can facilitate early identification, and therefore early intervention.

For a child to become a successful reader, a variety of different skills need to come together. Understanding these basic components of reading development and, more important, using teaching approaches we know work, are critical components of both general and special education.


Dr. Cutting recently presented a webinar on this topic as part of our Lead the Way to Literacy Leadership Talks. View the recorded webinar and register for additional presentations from our literacy thought leaders.

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