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Reading, activity characterized by the translation of symbols, or letters, into words
and sentences that have meaning to the individual. The ultimate goal of reading is to
be able to understand written material, to evaluate it, and to use it for one's needs.
In order to read, one must follow a sequence of characters arranged in a particular
spatial order. For example, English flows from left to right, Hebrew from right to left,
and Chinese from top to bottom. The reader must know the pattern and use it
consistently. Ordinarily, the reader sees the symbols on a page, transmitting the
image from the eye to the brain, but reading also can be accomplished by touch, as
in the Braille system, a printing method designed for the blind that involves raised or
Reading refers to activities as varied as a first grader's struggling with simple
sentences in a storybook, a cook's following directions from a cookbook, or a
scholar's attempting to understand the meanings of a poem. Reading exposes people
to the accumulated wisdom of human civilization. Mature readers bring to the text
their experiences, abilities, and interests; the text, in turn, allows them to expand
those experiences and abilities and to find new interests. To reach maturity in
reading, an individual goes through a series of stages, from readiness to adult
The earliest stage, readiness, encompasses the skills that young children usually
acquire before they can profit from formal reading instruction. Children acquire
knowledge of the language and of letter names; they learn that spoken words are
composed of separate sounds and that letters can represent these sounds. Parents
can aid in the process by reading to children, thus acquainting them with the more
formal language of books, pointing out words and letters, and making them aware
that words in a book can tell a story or give information. Other readiness skills are
acquired through word and rhyme games. Play with language apparently helps young
children focus their attention on the sounds of words as well as on their meanings.
Children also learn about other aspects of written language. At younger ages they
can distinguish their script from that of other languages, recognize commercial logos,
engage in “pseudoreading” with familiar books, and so on. It has been suggested
that these early “reading” behaviors contribute to later reading success.
In kindergarten or first grade, children are often given readiness tests that measure
abilities in language, knowledge of letter names, and skill in matching words and
letters. High scorers on these tests usually become good beginning readers, but
children with low scores may or may not do well in reading. Experienced
kindergarten teachers can often predict first-grade reading abilities as well as or
better than readiness tests.
In the first grade, children begin to learn the printed equivalents for the spoken
words they know. Some schools and reading textbooks teach the child to recognize
whole words and stress the meaning of the text. Others first emphasize the study of
phonics—that is, the sounds represented by individual letters—and the development
of independent word-recognition skills. Nearly all current programs combine both
techniques; they try to teach a child to recognize words and to learn phonics. For
more than 60 years, research has shown that early, systematic phonics instruction
produces high reading achievement, at least until the third grade. The most common
means of instruction is the basal reading program, consisting of a reader, workbook,
and other associated materials. These readers have been criticized as not containing
sufficiently high-quality literature and as not meeting the child's needs for meaningful
content. Defenders have suggested that a limited vocabulary is necessary in the
beginning so that children can concentrate on learning to recognize and sound
In the early elementary grades, children read stories and selections containing
common words already familiar from speech. With practice, most children read with
increasing fluency and understanding. The different reading levels in a classroom
may lead to the grouping of readers or even to an individualized approach that
adapts instruction to each reader's abilities.
I DEVELOPMENT OF
In the mid-elementary and junior high school years, emphasis shifts from reading
stories with known content to reading more difficult materials that teach the child
new ideas and opinions. At this stage, silent reading for comprehension and study
skills are emphasized. This shift from learning to read to reading to learn is
especially important because the student must now begin to use reading skills to
learn facts and concepts in social studies, science, and other subjects. Making this
shift is difficult for some students, and their reading scores may increase at a slower
pace than in the primary grades.
Some educators see reading comprehension as a series of subskills, such as
understanding word meanings in context, finding the main idea, making inferences
about information implied but not stated, and distinguishing between fact and
opinion. Published programs based on this view purport to divide reading into as
many as 350 different subskills to be mastered during the elementary grades.
Managing such a program, including the administration and scoring of tests for each
subskill, and providing sufficient practice for each subskill can be difficult for a
Some have suggested that an excessive emphasis on subskills leads to worksheets
crowding out children's opportunity to experience literature. These theorists tend to
treat reading comprehension as a general ability not made up of specific skills.
Programs based on such theories stress broad, extensive reading; understanding of
word meanings; and development of reasoning abilities.
In high school and college, reading materials become more abstract and contain a
larger, more technical vocabulary. At this stage, the student not only must acquire
new information but also must critically analyze the text and achieve an optimal
reading rate based on the difficulty of the material and the purpose of the reading.
Word study is one way for the older student to improve reading ability. This involves
using a dictionary and thesaurus, studying word parts, and learning how to find the
meaning of a word from the context. Students can also improve their vocabularies by
paying conscious attention to any new words they may encounter.
Because a mature reader must have several different reading rates available for
different materials and purposes, practice in skimming a passage for general
meaning and scanning for specific information is useful.
The development of efficient study strategies is important in learning various kinds of
subject matter. One useful study technique is outlining, which helps to develop an
awareness of the main points and details of a selection.
Various studies have shown the importance of good teaching and of effective school
leadership in promoting reading achievement. Students seem to learn to read better,
for example, if the school principal is a strong leader with high expectations about
reading achievement. The amount of direct instruction in reading and the amount of
time students spend in reading-related activities also affect reading development.
Reading tests are of two main types: survey and diagnostic. Survey tests, used with
groups, measure one or more aspects of reading. Diagnostic tests usually are given
individually as part of a battery of tests measuring many different components of
Most standardized reading-achievement tests are survey tests; they may be either
norm referenced or criterion referenced. Norm-referenced tests compare an
individual child's performance to that of other children taking the same test and yield
a grade level or a percentile score. Criterion-referenced tests measure individual
reading subskills and indicate the skills mastered, those needing review, and those in
which the student needs extra help.
A special type of criterion-referenced test is the minimum competency test. Most
states administer these tests to gauge students' reading ability during certain grades
in elementary school and at the end of their high school careers. Some minimum
competency tests include reading tasks resembling those in the everyday world, such
as following directions on a form or reading signs and labels, job applications, and
portions of a newspaper.
Diagnostic tests can also be either norm or criterion referenced. These tests are given
by specialists in reading or learning disabilities, as well as by classroom teachers, to
define a student's specific areas of reading strengths and weaknesses that can be
used in planning an effective teaching program.
READING AND LEARNING
From 10 to 15 percent of all children have a reading disability—that is, they read
significantly below their mental ability. A smaller number of these children may be
found to have a learning disability. Most professionals tend to use the term reading
disability to refer to a significant discrepancy in reading, irrespective of the cause.
The term learning disability is used to refer to a discrepancy that is not caused by
vision, hearing, or motor handicaps; mental retardation; emotional disturbance; or
environmental disadvantage, but rather by a presumed underlying neurological
In schools, students who are not mastering reading skills may be referred to either a
remedial-reading or a learning-disabilities specialist, both of whom employ a similar
procedure. Referred students are given a series of diagnostic tests to determine how
their strengths can be enhanced and their weaknesses overcome. A program based
on the evaluation is developed for the student and followed by both the specialist and
the classroom teacher. At the end of the term, the student will be retested to assess
any progress and to update the program. Research has shown that with early and
direct attention given to the reading program, greater improvement will occur. Many
studies have indicated that remedial-reading instruction can lead to significant gains
that are retained after many years.
See also Dyslexia
INSTRUCTION OF GIFTED
The gifted usually have reading and related language abilities one or more years
beyond their grade placement. Students who are precocious in reading should be
challenged by the use of materials as close as possible to their level of development.
In or outside class, teachers can provide supplemental reading or assign special
I IMPORTANCE OF READING
Besides its intrinsic value, the ability to read has economic consequences. Adults who
are better-than-average readers are also higher-than-average earners or are more
likely to have high-paying jobs. The growing technicalization of society has brought
increasing demands for literacy, which the schools are hard pressed to meet. A
higher level of literacy is needed in business and industry, in the armed forces, and
even in everyday life. The reading ability needed to comprehend materials important
to daily living, such as income tax forms and newspapers, has been estimated to be
as high as the 12th-grade level. Some efforts have been made to simplify forms and
manuals, but the lack of sufficient reading ability definitely impairs a person's
capacity to function in modern Western society.
Adult literacy programs can be distinguished by the stages of literacy they address.
Programs to counter below-functional literacy stress the development of decoding
and word recognition, similar to the goals of early elementary schools, but they use
materials more appropriate to an adult age. Programs that deal with development at
the functional literacy level stress the use of reading to learn new information and to
perform job-related tasks. Advanced literacy programs stress the development of
higher-level skills needed for high school equivalency diplomas.
The great importance of reading ability is underscored by the growth of literacy
programs in some Third World nations, as, for example, in Cuba. These programs,
which generally send young people to rural areas to serve as teachers for illiterates in
a national effort, often combine the teaching of reading with political instruction.