Improving Reading in the Primary Grades

By Duke, Nell K.; Block, Meghan K. | The Future of Children, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview
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Improving Reading in the Primary Grades


Duke, Nell K., Block, Meghan K., The Future of Children


A fourth-grade student is working diligently on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in Reading. (1) The student finishes reading an informational article on the blue crab and then encounters the following question:

The growth of a blue crab larva into a full-grown blue crab is most like the development of

A) a human baby into a teenager

B) an egg into a chicken

C) a tadpole into a frog

D) a seed into a tree

The answer to this question is not explicitly stated in the text. Reading the words in the question accurately and fluently, while necessary, is not sufficient to answer the question. The fourth-grader also needs vocabulary knowledge (such as understanding the meaning of larva and development), specific reading-comprehension strategies (the ability to make connections to prior knowledge and draw analogies), and conceptual and content knowledge of the life cycles of four different organisms, in addition to that of the blue crab.

As the student works, the teacher sits anxiously at the head of the classroom, wondering whether all of the school's efforts to improve reading instruction in the primary grades (kindergarten through grade three) will pay off. In recent years, enormous attention and resources have been put into primary-grade education, most notably through the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, enacted in 2001. A central goal of this measure was to have all students reading at grade level by the end of third grade. (2) As Sean Reardon and colleagues document in their article in this issue, fourth-grade achievement on the NAEP has shown some improvement in the past decade. (3) Yet, two-thirds of fourth- and eighth-grade students still do not reach the "proficient" category, and performance gaps by socioeconomic status are as great as they have ever been.

In this article we consider the role of instruction in the progress, or lack of it, in improving reading achievement in the primary grades. Has reading instruction in the primary grades of U.S. schools changed? If so, in what ways? For better or worse? What important areas and strategies for improvement remain? And what obstacles do schools face in successfully adopting best practices in teaching reading?

The Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children Report

In 1995 the U.S. departments of education and health and human services commissioned the National Research Council (NRC) to study the prevention of reading difficulties. A committee made up of a diverse group of respected experts in reading and related areas investigated various aspects of the problem and, in 1998, issued a report, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. The report was designed to translate research into advice and guidelines about what could be done in preschool through grade three to better position students for reading success in later schooling. (4)

While not without its detractors, the report was widely lauded and can be viewed as representing a broad consensus, as of 1998, regarding how literacy should be developed in the early grades. To answer our questions on the state of reading instruction in the primary grades, we have chosen six key recommendations from the report (listed in table 1), to assess whether and how widely they have been adopted. We then review research and reviews of research published since 1998 on reading instruction and discuss the implications of our assessment for improving primary-grade reading.

Some readers may wonder why we have not taken as a basis for our analysis the Report of the National Reading Panel, issued in 2000. Developed under the auspices of the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, this report appears to have had a greater impact on policy and practice, in part because its recommendations influenced the No Child Left Behind legislation. Although the findings from this report and its impact are woven throughout this article, we believe the NRC's recommendations offer a better point of departure for our discussion for five reasons.

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