While our brains are hard-wired for language, they were never designed for reading or writing. Those are behaviors that we have added to the tasks that we ask the human brain to do in our society. As a result, there are many reasons one child make not make as much progress in learning to read as another child may make.
Learning to read begins at birth or according to some experts, even while the child is still in the womb. The background knowledge that a child brings to the schoolhouse door does make a difference (See 30 Million Word Gap) and has a direct correlation to how successful that child will be in school. Researchers say that the two strongest predictors of school success are a child's proficiency in phonemic awareness and the size of the child's vocabulary. We know that the gap between good readers and struggling readers develops as early as by the end of first grade. Without effective and timely intervention, this gap will continue to grow until there may be a gap of 4-5 years or more by the child's high school years. Without help, struggling readers will most likely never catch up and they will either "tune out" or "act out" in classrooms all across the country.
All young readers must have a solid grasp of phonemic awareness to understand the "lilt" of the language and the sounds that various letters and letter combinations make. Secondly, they must be able to decode the words they encounter by understanding how to apply the English phonetic system to words. Beginning readers commonly learn to identify initial sounds first, final sounds second and then learn to distinguish how medial sounds change the meaning of the word. For example, the medial sounds in "book," "back" and "beak" change the entire meaning of the word. Children must quickly recognize the meaning of the word and then be able to make sense of the context in which the word appears. Reading is about meaning out of the symbols on the page. If a child gets no meaning from the words, then reading has not taken place.
Much like math skills and understandings build, so too does reading skill. A child who has poor phonemic awareness skills will struggle with developing strong phonics skills. A child who has poor decoding skills, will find it difficult to become a fluent reader with good comprehension skills. The threads of reading must be solidly woven under each child if they are to become capable readers. Teachers must use good assessment techniques to find the "holes" in a reader's tapestry and then work to fill those holes with appropriate and targeted instruction. Until the holes preventing the student from mastering the level where they are "stuck" are filled, little progress will be made moving to the next level of reading mastery.
Reading is a participation sport! Like the tennis player or the golfer, students only become better readers when they practice reading. We must take the time to model reading by reading orally to our students. We must find what interests our students and help them find text that is at the appropriate level of difficulty and motivating to read. Without meaning and joy in reading, students will continue to struggle and fight attempts to help them become better readers. We must help our students develop strong vocabularies and good background knowledge so they can relate to the material they read.
Reading must also be a social activity. As adult readers, we talk to our friends about books we have read or articles in our favorite magazines to reflect upon ideas or clarify meaning for ourselves. Our students must be given opportunities to talk about, think about and ask questions about the meaning of the text they read. Only when we act the ways I have outlined in this article will we succeed in helping our students become strong and informed readers who are ready for tomorrow.