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Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)

National Institute for Literacy (NIFL)

U.S. Department of Education (ED)

Frequently Asked Questions
National Reading Panel (NRP) Frequently Asked Questions

What is the National Reading Panel?

In 1997, Congress asked the Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), along with the Secretary of Education, to convene a national panel on reading. The National Reading Panel (NRP) was asked by Congress to assess the status of research-based knowledge about reading, including the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching children to read. The panel was made up of 14 people, including leading scientists in reading research, representatives of colleges of education, teachers, educational administrators, and parents. The NRP met over a period of two years to discuss their findings and prepare the results in two reports and a video titled, "Teaching Children to Read."

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How did the National Reading Panel gather information for its study?

The Panel followed three paths for gathering information for its study. The first was to review a variety of public databases to determine what research had already been conducted on how children learn to read. The second was to gather information from the public about their needs and their understanding of reading research. The NRP accomplished this by holding public regional hearings. The third was to consult with leading education organizations that had an interest in reading issues.

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How did the Panel gather information from the public?

The Panel held five public hearings in 1998 in different cities around the country: New York, Chicago, Houston, Jackson, MS, and Portland, OR. At these hearings, the Panel received oral or written testimony from 125 individuals or organizations representing the ultimate users and beneficiaries of the Panel's findings. These included teachers, parents, students, university faculty, education policy experts, and scientists.

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What did the Panel learn from these hearings?

Participants in the hearings expressed several themes quite clearly. They noted the important role parents and others play in providing children with early experiences that foster reading development. They also highlighted the importance of identifying early which kids are at risk for reading failure and intervening quickly to help them.

Participants also stressed the importance of phonemic awareness, as well as the need to combine a variety of reading approaches into teaching strategies. The instruction, they argued, should be scientifically based. For that reason, the participants urged the Panel to base its conclusions on experimental studies conducted according to rigorous scientific standards. In addition, participants highlighted the importance of professional development for teachers and the need to encourage more interactions between teachers and researchers. And finally, participants urged wide dissemination of the Panel's eventual findings.

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What research did the Panel review in developing its findings?

The Panel first reviewed public databases and found about 100,000 research studies on reading that had been published since 1966. Because it was not possible for the Panel to critically review all this research, panel members decided to set criteria for which studies to include in their review.

The Panel began by first selecting research topics to examine that were central to the issues of learning how to read. The selection of topics was guided by the work of the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). The NRC Committee had identified and summarized research literature relevant to the critical skills, environments, and early interactions that are important for gaining beginning reading skills.

Once it selected the topics for review, the Panel also decided how to choose which studies to include in its analysis. To ensure the quality of the work, the Panel agreed to base its conclusions only on studies that had appeared in English in a refereed journal. The Panel limited its review to studies that focused directly on children's reading development from preschool through Grade 12. The Panel also concentrated only on studies that were experimental or quasi-experimental in design. These studies had to include a sample size that was considered large enough to be useful, and the instructional procedures used in the studies had to be well defined.

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What research topics did the Panel examine?

The Panel concentrated on the following areas: Alphabetics, including the issues of phonemic awareness instruction and phonics instruction; Fluency; Comprehension, including vocabulary instruction, text comprehension instruction, and teacher preparation and comprehension strategies; Teacher Education and Reading Instruction; and Computer Technology and Reading Instruction.

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What is phonemic awareness (PA)?

Phonemes are the smallest units making up spoken language. English consists of about 41 phonemes. Phonemes combine to form syllables and words. A few words have only one phoneme, such as a (a) or oh (o). Most words consist of a blend of phonemes, such as go (g-o) with two phonemes, check (ch-e-ck) with three phonemes, or stop with four phonemes (s-t-o-p). Phonemic awareness refers to the ability to focus on and manipulate these phonemes in spoken words.

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What did the Panel conclude about phonemic awareness (PA)?

Scientific evidence shows that teaching children to manipulate the sounds in language (phonemes) helps them learn to read. This remains true under a variety of teaching conditions and with a variety of learners across a range of grade and age levels. The NRP concluded that teaching phonemic awareness to children significantly improves their reading when compared to instruction without any attention to phonemic awareness. Specifically, the results of experimental studies led the Panel to conclude that PA training led to improvement in students' phonemic awareness, reading, and spelling.

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What is phonics instruction?

Phonics instruction is a way of teaching reading that stresses learning how letters correspond to sounds and how to use this knowledge in reading and spelling. Phonics instruction can be provided systematically. Systematic phonics instruction occurs when children receive explicit, systematic instruction in a set of pre-specified associations between letters and sounds. Children are taught how to use these associations to read, typically in texts containing controlled vocabulary.

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What did the Panel conclude about phonics instruction?

The Panel determined that systematic phonics instruction leads to significant positive benefits for students in kindergarten through sixth grade and for children with difficulty learning to read. Kindergartners who receive systematic beginning phonics instruction read better and spell better than other children, and first graders are better able to decode and spell words. The students also show significant improvement in their ability to understand what they read. Similarly, phonics instruction helps older children spell and decode text better, although their understanding does not necessarily improve.

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What is reading fluency?

Reading fluency is one of several critical factors necessary for reading comprehension, but is often neglected in the classroom. If children read out loud with speed, accuracy, and proper expression, they are more likely to comprehend and remember the material than if they read with difficulty and in an inefficient way. Two instructional approaches have typically been used to teach reading fluency. One, guided repeated oral reading, encourages students to read passages out loud with systematic and explicit guidance and feedback from their teacher. The other, independent silent reading, encourages students to read silently on their own, inside and outside the classroom, with little guidance or feedback from their teachers.

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What did the Panel conclude about reading fluency?

Reading practice is generally believed to improve fluency, and two instructional approaches are usually used to practice reading: guided repeated oral reading and independent silent reading. The Panel determined that guided repeated oral reading has a significant and positive impact on word recognition, reading fluency, and comprehension for students of all ages. However, the Panel was unable to conclude that independent silent reading, as the only type of reading instruction, improves reading fluency. More research is needed to understand the specific influences that independent silent reading practices have on reading fluency.

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What are the components of reading comprehension?

Reading comprehension is very important to the development of children's reading skills and therefore to their ability to obtain an education. In carrying out its study of reading comprehension, the NRP noted three main themes in the research on the development of reading comprehension skills. First, reading comprehension is a complex cognitive process that cannot be understood without a clear description of the role that vocabulary development and vocabulary instruction play in the understanding of what has been read. Second, comprehension is an active process that requires an intentional and thoughtful interaction between the reader and the text (text comprehension instruction). Third, the preparation of teachers to better equip students to develop and apply reading comprehension strategies to enhance understanding is intimately linked to students' achievement in this area.

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What did the Panel conclude about reading comprehension?

Vocabulary development has long been considered important for reading comprehension. The Panel concluded that vocabulary should be taught both directly and indirectly. Repetition and seeing vocabulary words several times is also important. Learning in rich contexts, incidental learning, and the use of computer technology all help children develop larger vocabularies. A combination of methods, rather than a single teaching method, leads to the best learning.

As with vocabulary development, text comprehension is improved when teachers use a combination of reading comprehension techniques such as question answering, question generation, and summarization. When students are able to use them successfully, they perform better in recall, answering questions, generating questions, and summarizing texts.

The Panel found that intensive professional development is necessary so that teachers can learn to use reading comprehension strategies effectively. Preferably, teachers should receive formal instruction on strategies to teach reading comprehension as early as preservice. More research is needed on a number of issues, including which components of teacher preparation are most effective.

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What did the Panel conclude about teacher education and reading instruction?

The Panel determined that inservice professional development for teachers results in significantly higher achievement for their students. This is true for established as well as new teachers. More research is needed, however, to determine the best combinations of inservice and preservice training, the appropriate length of each, and how teachers should be supported over the long term to improve student performance. The relationship between the development of standards and teacher education is an important gap in current knowledge.

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What did the Panel determine about the value of computer technology to reading instruction?

The research reviewed by the Panel was too limited to make any strong recommendations about the value of computer technology to reading instruction. However, all the studies indicate positive results, suggesting that using computer technology for reading instruction is very promising. For instance, the addition of speech to computer-presented text, the use of hypertext, and the use of computers as word processors all show promise.

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Why didn't the Panel examine any other research topics?

The Panel selected the issues in the report because they have been the subjects of a wide variety of studies, theories, instructional programs, and educational policies. Using the findings of the National Research Council as a foundation to build upon, the Panel also considered the testimony from the public regional hearings when deciding which topics to study. Through this review, the Panel concluded that these topics are widely regarded as the central issues in reading instruction and reading improvement. Nevertheless, the Panel recognizes that other topics may have an impact on reading instruction. Each of the reports of the subgroups identifies areas recommended for future research.

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Did the National Reading Panel examine vision-related problems of children as a possible cause of reading difficulties?

In the initial review and screening of the literature on reading instruction, the NRP identified studies that specifically measured reading as an outcome. The NRP applied the same rigorous methodological criteria to all studies that included reading outcomes. The NRP charge was to examine effectiveness of instructional methods for teaching reading. Studies of vision training not explicitly used as reading instruction methods were not considered. Research involving vision was not simply excluded from consideration by the NRP. Studies on teaching reading, either to visually impaired or to non-impaired readers, and that also met the NRP's methodological criteria, would have been included in the NRP's analysis. However, there were no studies involving oculomotor interventions that satisfied these criteria.

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What do the Panel's findings mean to teachers?

The Panel identified a number of instructional strategies that are very promising for teaching students with reading difficulties. Many of these teaching methods and approaches are ready right now for use in the classroom. In addition, the Panel provided extensive references that teachers can use to find appropriate and scientifically validated instructional methods. It also noted areas where more research is needed to determine objectively if teaching methods are effective.

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What do the Panel's findings mean to parents?

Parents have long been considered critical to the development of their children's reading skills. Parents who read with their children can help get them interested in reading at an early age and help model good reading habits. Parents also have other important roles to play in supporting their children's reading development. The Panel's report highlights which teaching strategies have been proven effective and those that may not be effective. Parents who become familiar with the Panel's findings can become advocates for quality reading instruction in their children's schools. In addition, those who become familiar with the Panel's findings can use this information to help them determine if their children are struggling and if they should be candidates for more individualized reading instruction. Parents can now rely on the Panel's findings as their source on reading instruction and use their understanding of the findings to identify other tools to help their children develop better reading skills.

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What do the Panel's findings mean to administrators?

The Panel reviewed the effectiveness of teacher preparation in reading instruction. Although the Panel determined that more study is necessary to show which components of teacher education are most effective, it nevertheless concluded that inservice professional development improved teaching as well as student performance. These findings suggest that administrators should regularly make professional development opportunities available to their teaching staff. To ensure that the report's findings are successfully disseminated, the Panel also relies on administrators to pass on their knowledge and be effective advocates for research-based information.

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Does the Panel's work put an end to controversy about the best way to teach reading?

The Panel's research suggests that reading instruction is complex. Children come into the classroom with different levels of preparation, as do their teachers. In addition, learning to read requires a combination of skills, including phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, and text reading comprehension skills. Not all children learn in the same way and one strategy does not work for all children. As a result, the Panel's findings demonstrate that learning phonics skills is critical for positive reading development. However, the best results will be achieved when direct instruction is combined with the development of other skills, and when teachers are able to use a combination of direct instructional strategies to achieve those skills.

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What is the National Reading Panel doing now?

Although the work of producing the panel report is complete, the findings continue to be distributed. Panel members also continue to speak at various conferences and organizational meetings regarding their findings.

In addition, the work of the National Reading Panel is being expanded by a nationwide strategy for dissemination and implementation of its findings. This new initiative is the National Reading Excellence Initiative (NREI), a national project for disseminating reading research authorized by the Reading Excellence Act conducted under the auspices of the National Institute for Literacy. The NREI's mission is to make scientifically based reading research more accessible to educators, parents, policymakers, and other interested individuals. The NREI will be implemented through a diverse mix of public awareness, professional development, and program replication activities.

In 2001, the NREI will mount an aggressive campaign to distribute the findings of the National Reading Panel, as well as other evidence-based reports designed to improve reading instruction and literacy. As part of this campaign, the National Institute for Literacy, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the U.S. Department of Education have formed a partnership to work on continued dissemination and implementation efforts of the NRP report. They are currently in the process of convening a "Working Partners Group" that includes representatives of various education and business organizations, all of whom are essential to the efforts to reform and improve reading instruction in the nation's classrooms. Perhaps most important, this campaign will be designed to help those on the education front lines implement evidence-based reading instruction practices in the classroom.

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Teaching Children To Read