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NICHD Reading Research Offers Crucial Data for Educators

By Evelyn Peter, M.A.T.
President, Reading and Language Arts Centers, Inc.


The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) has released the results of a first-of-its-kind reading development study bearing significant implications for educators. This study has garnered worldwide attention due to its scientific scope and rigor, and educators are being called upon to reevaluate how reading is taught to all children.

Dr. Reid Lyon, visionary and director of the NICHD, is frequently asked, "Why does the NICHD conduct and support research in reading, given the nature of the agency?"

His primary response is that learning to read is critical to a childís well-being and that if a youngster does not learn to read in our literacy-driven society, hope for a fulfilling, productive life diminishes. In short, difficulties in learning to read are not only an educational problem, but also constitute a serious public health concern.

NICHD is part of a federal agency that emphasizes basic biomedical science and health-related research and has been studying normal reading development and reading difficulties for 35 years.

Researchers have studied more than 10,000 children, published more than 2,500 articles and written more than 50 books that present the results of 10 large-scale longitudinal studies and more than 1,500 smaller scale experimental and cross-sectional studies.

Many of the longitudinal research sites initiated studies in the early 1980s with kindergarten children before they began their reading instruction and have studied the children over time. Researchers have studied some children for as long as 15 years with several sites following the youngsters for at least 5 years. At most sites, multidisciplinary research teams study cognitive, linguistic, neurobiological, genetic, and instructional factors related to early reading development and reading difficulties.

The NICHD reading research program is rooted in scientific tradition and the scientific method. The program rests on systematic, longitudinal, field-based investigations, cross-sectional studies and laboratory-based experiments that are publicly verifiable and replicable. It also integrates quantitative and qualitative methods to increase the richness, impact, and ecological validity of data.


  1) How do children learn to read English (and other languages)? What are the critical elements that foster fluent reading of text?
  2) What skill deficits and environmental factors impede reading development?
  3) For which children are which instructional approaches most beneficial, at which stages of reading development?


  * Word recognition difficulties are the most reliable indicators of reading disability. Reading fluency and comprehension are precluded by the inability to read words quickly and accurately.
  * Without early identification and intervention, reading difficulties typically persist into adulthood at least to the extent of hindering the enjoyment and productivity of reading.
  * Even among children and adults who score within normal ranges on reading and achievement tests, many report that reading is so laborious and unproductive that they rarely read either for learning or for enjoyment.
  * The logic of all alphabet languages, including English, is built on the understanding that every word is made up of a sequence of elementary speech sounds or phonemes; it is the phonemes that are represented by the letters. A failure to notice that spoken words can be broken into phonemes is a major cause of profound reading disability.
  * Developing adequate awareness of phonemes is not dependent on intelligence, SES, or parentís education, but can be effectively fostered through instruction. Such instruction is shown to accelerate reading acquisition in general even as it reduces the incidence of reading failure.
  * Understanding how the alphabet works is necessary but not sufficient. Children must use their spelling-sound knowledge in their own reading and writing; only through use will this knowledge become fluent and effortless. Again, where instruction systematically fosters such use, reading acquisition is accelerated and the incidence of failure is significantly reduced.
  * Beyond the basics, reading growth is promoted by direct instruction in comprehension strategies and depends on a regular and broad diet of independent reading.
  * Due to both biological and background factors, the difficulty of learning to read varies significantly across children. However, the major contributor to reading failure is instruction that is inadequate to the childís needs or the demands of the reading situation.
  * The best strategy for preventing and correcting reading difficulties is explicit, systematic instruction guided by on-going assessments, to include: >
  a) early support of letter knowledge and phonemic awareness;
  b) instruction on letter-sound correspondences and spelling conventions;
  c) opportunity and encouragement to use spelling-sound knowledge in reading and writing;
  d) daily sessions for independent and supported reading with attention to both fluency and comprehension; and
  e) active exploration of new language, concepts, and modes of thought that are offered by written text.

For more information about national research and findings or about multisensory teaching strategies and materials, visit our web page at www.rlac.com and visit both our Educators and Parents pages. Join our FREE email newsletter from our web site.


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