Is Early Reading Ability Innate or Cultivated?

I admit it--I'm a bit worried that my four-year-old son can only recognize a few words by sight.  After all, I was an early reader, and while I'm not keeping my fingers crossed that my son is gifted academically (not after my own experiences as a gifted child!), I have been looking forward to watching him discover the magic of reading.  (OK, seeing a friend's 6-year-old son reading words with five syllables made me a bit jealous.)  New research published Thursday by two scientists from Carnegie Mellon University suggests that I need not worry--even if my son ends up not being a "born reader," he'll be able to catch up through some focused instruction and practice.

A summary of the research--published in the journal Neuron (subscription only)--provided by the Pittsburg Post-Gazette explains the findings of study authors Timothy Keller and Marcel Just:

[A]fter just six months of intensive remedial reading instruction, children who had been poor readers were not only able to improve their skills, but grew new white-matter connections in their brains.

Even though the 35 third- and fifth-graders didn't achieve the same skill level as a group of 25 excellent readers, their white-matter connections in one particular pathway on the left side of their brains became just as strong as those in the top reading group. Meanwhile, 12 poor readers who attended regular classes showed no change in the connecting tissue.

Writing for Valerie Straus's Answer Sheet blog at The Washington Post, literacy expert and sixth-grade language-arts teacher Donalyn Miller expressed her concern about the article:

While the study shows promise for educators and clinicians who work with developing readers, one casual mention in the study stood out for me— the 25 children designated as “excellent readers” in the control group still outperformed the 35 third and fifth graders who participated in the remediation program.

The widespread belief that some readers possess an innate gift, like artists or athletes, sells many children short. I often hear parents claim, “Well, my child is just not a reader,” as if the reading fairy passed over their child while handing out the good stuff.

Miller points out that while the students struggling with reading are getting all that remedial instruction, the students who are already strong readers are actually reading--which is why the "excellent readers" in the study's control group still outperformed those in the remediation program. 

Miller explains:

The strong readers always outstrip the weaker readers because they practice, finesse, and expand their reading skills through hours and hours of reading. Imagine learning to drive on a simulator, but never stepping behind the wheel of a real car. No matter what remedial instruction children receive in school, they never catch up to the good readers because they don’t read enough to improve.

Richard Allington, respected reading researcher found that, “The average higher- achieving students read approximately three times as much a week as their lower-achieving classmates, not including out of school reading.” And the impact of heavy reading is a cumulative one. The more kids read, the better they read, and the more reading they continue to do.

Miller lists three ways that parents can encourage their children to be better readers: access to books, role model readers, and a choice of reading material.  To sum up: Have lots of books in the house (visit the library frequently if purchasing books for a reader with changing tastes and abilities isn't within your budget); let your children see you read, and share your love of reading with them; and let kids choose which books they read a good deal of the time, lest they get turned off from reading.

Miller also writes The Book Whisperer blog for Teacher Magazine.  I found really interesting her recent piece on reading aloud in the middle-school years.  Check out the post--it provides some resources on how to find books that are good choices for reading aloud.

Another terrific post about learning to read comes from Catherine at Adventures with Kids. In a post published today called "Stages of Learning to Read," she shares some interesting information gleaned from an article in Reading Rockets:

  • know that print carries meaning
  • know what written language looks like
  • identify and name letters of the alphabet
  • know that letters are associated with sounds
  • know the sounds that letters make
  • know that using words can serve various purposes
  • know how books work

Lenz on Learning also has a terrific post this week packed with tips for parents of budding readers.  Among the suggestions: let kids make mistakes without correcting them; don't get so giddy with progress that you over-praise a child; and when your child asks what a word is, just tell her instead of asking her to "sound it out."  Click through to the post to read the justifications for each tip.

What's your advice for parents whose children are learning to read?  What resources do you recommend?  And what are you struggling with in teaching your own children to read or enjoy reading?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.

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