In 1998, the National Research Council published “Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children.” In “Improving Reading in the Primary Grades,” one of the articles in the Future of Children issue on literacy, authors Nell Duke and Megan Block examine how far we have come – or not come – in implementing the report’s research-based recommendations and improving children’s ability to read proficiently by the end of third grade.
Duke is a professor at the University of Michigan, and Block is a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University.
“Recommendations regarding increased access to kindergarten and greater attention to and improvement of students’ word-reading skills have been widely adopted,” a summary of the article notes. “Vocabulary and comprehension, long neglected in the primary grades, still appear to be neglected. Contrary to the report’s recommendations, attention to building conceptual and content knowledge in science and social studies has actually decreased in the past 15 years. In other words, the easier-to-master skills are being attended to, but the broader domains of accomplishment that constitute preparation for comprehension and learning in the later grades – vocabulary knowledge, comprehension strategy use and content knowledge – are being neglected. Near stagnation in fourth-grade students’ comprehension achievement is thus unsurprising.”
The authors note that research finds a decrease in science and social studies instruction in the primary grades as more time is devoted to skill-focused reading and math instruction. “While the failure to build conceptual and content knowledge in the primary grades may not affect reading development in the short term,” they write, “the long-term results of this failure may be substantial.”
In addition to this focus on word-reading skills, such as decoding and fluency, at the expense of building vocabulary and content knowledge, the authors cite a lack of expertise in how to teach these harder-to-master meaning-based skills. They also note teachers’ time constraints in an era of increased expectations. They call for professional development and training to help teachers of young children learn effective instructional strategies for improving content knowledge, including “predicting, questioning, visualizing, drawing inferences, and summarizing or retelling.” They call for consideration of lengthening the school day or year, but caution that “adding to the time children spend in school helps only if the nature of what happens during those hours is changed.”
“In the nearly 15 years that have passed since the publication of ‘Preventing Reading Difficulties,’ subsequent research has reinforced its major recommendations,” the authors note. “The report’s emphasis on developing word-reading skill (and its foundations), building vocabulary and content knowledge, teaching comprehension strategies, and promoting reading outside of school have more than withstood the test of time.”