1. Sadly, at least 20% of children (mostly economically disadvantaged) in the United States don't learn to read well enough, early enough, to be successful in school. This is not a new development; children have been failing to learn to read at about that rate at least since the 1960's, and NAEP scores indicate that there is virtually no change in that percentage over the last 35 years. Once children fall behind in reading, they almost never catch up (Juel, 1990). The reason they can't catch up is that after first grade, when children typically learn to read, poor readers read fewer than 50,000 words per year, while good readers read 500,000 words or more (a factor of 10). So good readers get ten times more PRACTICE reading. This is called the, "Matthew Effect" (Stanovich, 1986). It is essential, therefore, for children to learn to read well in the first grade.
2. Although some children seem able to learn to read without direct, explicit teaching of phonics, some do not. Children who do learn to read without explicit teaching probably learn phonics indirectly, because research indicates that good readers know phonics. It may be that children who need more explicit instruction have greater difficulty generalizing--they do not automatically notice and apply patterns (such as "oi" in "boil") without the pattern being pointed out to them (generalizing requires the ability to think abstractly, and some researchers believe that most children cannot think abstractly until about age nine!). Teaching the English patterns (such as the Vowel Teams and Digraphs) is not difficult or unpleasant for kids, and when they are taught a pattern that is new to them, they immediately can read many new words.
3. Emotions around reading have been found to be profoundly important for maintaining motivation. Everything possible should be done to create a warm, pleasant experience for children around reading (such as being cuddled up together on a little sofa with a throw and hot chocolate). At least one highly-regarded expert feels that children simply can't learn if the tone that is set is not pleasant (Glasser, 1990).
4. A FLOW experience can be created for children, and is enormously motivating. A flow experience is that wonderful feeling we have when we are so absorbed in something we lose all track of time. A flow experience requires both challenge and very high interest (Csikszenmihalyi, 1990; and Schallert, 1997). Fortunately, learning to read is definitely a challange, and children are almost always extremely interested in learning to read. It is thought that flow experiences may account for some of the variability around reading--good readers report having such experiences as children much more frequently than do poor readers.
5. Research over the last twenty years has not supported the assertion that reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game (Goodman, 1967). Rather, reading problems occur primarily at the level of the single word and reflect insufficient phonological processing (Lyon, 1995). Ingenious experiments have proved that good readers look at every letter in a passage (Gough, P. B., 1990, 1993). Good readers soon develop speed and automaticity at this task, much as occurs in touch typing. The effectiveness of looking for semantic and syntactic clues is not supported in the research, and is a difficult and frustrating habit to correct.
5. Preserving intrinsic motivation is vital. Extrinsic motivation (tangible rewards) can undermine intrinsic motivation (the natural desire to learn) in the learning process (Deci, 1975). However, intrinsic motivation is not undermined when extrinsic motivation is used sparingly and randomly. Bribes and rewards, especially those that pit one child against another, are counterproductive. However, if every child receives a Sweet Tart or gets to put a puzzle together after hard work, intrinsic motivation is not undermined. Success experiences are highly motivating, and can be provided to every child every day, with some planning. And keep in mind that motivation is enhanced by clear goals, both proximal and long-range. Remind children often of the immediate and long-range benefits of reading.
7. For optimal gains, spend 95% of your time in guided reading. Spend the minimum amount of time on assessment--only what is necessary to plan instruction. If you're doing a good job, the child's skills and knowledge are going to be changing constantly; all that is useful is a knowledge of which specific skills are strong and which are weak and need to be addressed (until the end of the year when overall results are needed for data analysis).
8. Always remember that every attempt should be made to make the time extremely interesting to the child. During guided reading use group reading, echo reading, and partner reading; read Reader's Theaters, song lyrics (the Beach Boys songs are fun), scary stories, high-interest leveled trade books, poems, or whatever is fun and interesting to the children. Use visuals such as charts and word cards routinely to reinforce learning quickly and effectively. And when teaching children phonics, don't do anything boring, ever; make sure what you present is visually pleasing and stimulating; and be brief and systematic.
9. It has been found that students make more progress in small groups than one-on-one ( for a review of research, see Vaughan, S., Journal of Educational Psychology, 2000, Vol. 92, No. 4, 605f). For those of us currently in practice, this is GREAT news, because it is much cheaper to instruct in small groups. We can instruct more kids, for longer periods of time!
10. Do not discontinue instruction until children are good readers!! Instruction should continue until students reach an instructional DRA reading level of 16 in first grade, or DRA 28 at the end of second grade.