What are effective ways to teach reading, and to help struggling readers?


The ability to read and write is essential for daily life. Reading is also a prerequisite for participating fully in the education system, and poor reading skills can hold students back throughout their academic careers.[i] Three-quarters of children who are reading below grade level at the end of third grade continue to struggle with reading throughout secondary school.[ii] These children are more likely to have behavioral and social problems in later grades, and are less likely to graduate from high school.[ii]

Skillful reading comprehension requires the ability to read words (word recognition) and to understand what those words mean (language comprehension).[iii] Learners develop the ability to read words in stages.[iv] First, children learn letters and begin to connect them with sounds (phonemes). Then they start grouping together letters and sounds into morphemes, the smallest units of language (stand-alone words, as well as prefixes and suffixes). Once children can fully connect written words and sounds, they are able to learn new and more complex words through reading. When word recognition becomes automatic, students can devote energy to reading comprehension.[v]

The section below highlights key findings from the research on teaching reading.

Key Findings

Early and ongoing exposure to reading outside of school builds literacy and language skills.

Many children are first exposed to reading when parents and caregivers read to them at an early age. Research shows that the literacy environment in a child’s home (including the quantity and quality of conversations with parents and caregivers) has a significant impact on later language and reading skills.[vi] Beginning as early as the reading of picture books in infancy[iv], caregiver reading builds literacy and helps children develop a positive image of reading as an enjoyable leisure activity. This is important because the more time children spend reading for pleasure, the better their reading skills and academic performance will be.[vii] Levels of leisure reading predict reading comprehension, technical reading, and spelling skills for students of all ages, from preschool through university.[viii]

Phonemic awareness is essential to reading and is at the root of many reading difficulties.

Phonemic awareness is the recognition and production of the individual sounds that make up a language, and it is one of the strongest predictors of a child’s reading ability.[ix] Children who have limited phonemic awareness have trouble identifying the separate sounds within a word, understanding how two words sound alike or different, coming up with words that rhyme, and understanding how sounds blend together to form a word. Phonemic awareness is a fundamental building block for literacy, and one of the most important skills to include in early childhood reading education.[ix] When skills like letter and word recognition become automatic, students can focus their mental resources on the higher-order task of understanding and making meaning out of what they read.[x]

Phonics instruction is a widely used, highly effective approach for developing phonemic awareness.[ix] However, experts recommend that phonics should be one component of a balanced approach to reading education that incorporates multiple instructional techniques tailored to students’ skill levels.[xi][xii]

Language comprehension is an important part of skilled reading.

Teaching-Reading-Long-QuoteIn addition to phonemic awareness, language comprehension is a second foundational skill for reading. Language comprehension is the ability to gain meaning from what is read, and it includes a combination of several different skills and sets of knowledge. Students must have knowledge of vocabulary, and an understanding of the language structures between words and within sentences. They must also have background knowledge on the topic or words, and actively make connections between ideas so they can understand what they read [xiii]. Although language comprehension never becomes fully automatic in the same way as with phonemic awareness, it can be strengthened. For example, to foster vocabulary development, educators can provide opportunities for rich and varied oral dialogue experiences, and encourage students to read independently. They can also broaden students’ understanding of language use through exposure to discussions, and a variety of reading, television, movies, and online videos [xiii].

Certain groups of students face unique challenges learning to read.

Some students have difficulty developing literacy skills. Dyslexia is the most common reading-related disability, affecting nearly one in five students in the U.S.[xiv] Research suggests that trouble with phonemic awareness is at the root of dyslexia.[xv] Children with dyslexia can have difficulty learning letters, connecting letters to sounds, sounding out words, recognizing words on sight, and reading smoothly.[viii] The most effective intervention for these children is a combination of letter-sound training and phonemic awareness training (such as phonics instruction).[xiv]

Another group to consider in reading education are the estimated 4.4 million English Language Learner (ELL) students who are learning not just to read, but to read in a new language.[xvii] As opposed to students with dyslexia, most ELL students develop word reading skills on par with their native English-speaking peers. Instead, these students often struggle with language comprehension because they lack background knowledge, vocabulary, and an understanding of language structures in the new language. In addition to focusing on word-level skills, such as word recognition and spelling, instructional ELL programs should support language comprehension.[xviii][xix]


Reading Interventions

The Reading Interventions subtopic includes research on different approaches to improving students’ reading skills, particularly for students with reading difficulties.

Reading Disabilities/Difficulties

The Reading Disabilities/Difficulties subtopic describes the development of children with reading disabilities and reading difficulties, and possible ways to predict which children will experience reading difficulties.

Early Literacy

The Early Literacy subtopic includes research on different approaches for building preschool, pre-K, and kindergarten students’ literacy skills (including vocabulary and reading).

Reading Comprehension & Literacy

The Reading Comprehension & Literacy subtopic includes research on how people develop reading comprehension skills, and how those skills are connected to other aspects of literacy, such as vocabulary, word recognition, and language proficiency.

Writing Instruction

The Writing Instruction subtopic includes descriptions and evaluations of different instructional approaches that can be used to improve students’ writing skills.

Deaf Students & Reading

The Deaf Students & Reading subtopic includes research on how deaf and hard-of-hearing students develop reading skills, and various reading instruction methods for this student population.

Reading Comprehension & Older Students

The Reading Comprehension & Older Students subtopic explores instructional strategies for supporting older students’ reading comprehension (upper elementary/middle school).

Reading & Cognition

The Reading & Cognition subtopic includes research on how the brain processes and recognizes words based on sounds and visual images, and how this relates to individual differences in reading skill development.

Morphology & Reading

The Morphology & Reading subtopic explores the role of morphology (the form/structure of words) in learning to read, and the effects of morphological interventions designed to improve students’ reading skills.

Literacy Instruction & Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities

The Literacy Instruction & Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities subtopic explores various approaches to reading/literacy instruction for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities.


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[i] Hernandez, D. J. (2011). Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation. Annie E. Casey Foundation.
[ii] http://www.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/AECF-Early_Warning_Full_Report-2010.pdf
[iii] Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice, by H. S. Scarborough, in S. B. Newman & D. K. Dickinson (Eds.), 2002, Handbook of early literacy research, p. 98, Copyright 2002, New York, NY: Guilford Press. Reprinted with permission.
[iv] Ehri, L. C. (2005). Learning to read words: Theory, findings, and issues. Scientific Studies of reading, 9(2), 167-188.
Armbruster, B. B., Lehr, F., & Osborn, J. M. (2003). A Child Becomes a Reader: Birth through Preschool. Proven Ideas from Research for Parents.
[v] Murray, M.S. (2016). Word Recognition Skills: One of Two Essential Components of Reading Comprehension. In K.A. Munger (Ed.), Steps to success: Crossing the bridge between literacy research and practice. Geneseo, NY: Open SUNY Textbooks.
[vi] Fletcher, Kathryn L., et al. “Predicting language development in children at risk: The effects of quality and frequency of caregiver reading.” Early Education and Development 19.1 (2008): 89-111.
[vii] Mol, S. E., & Jolles, J. (2014). Reading enjoyment amongst non-leisure readers can affect achievement in secondary school. Frontiers in psychology, 5.
[viii] To Read or Not to Read: A Meta-Analysis of Print Exposure From Infancy to Early Adulthood [Article] Mol SE, Bus AG,PSYCHOL BULL (2011),
[ix] Phonological Skills and Their Role in Learning to Read: A Meta-Analytic Review [Review] Melby-Lervag M, Lyster SAH, Hulme C,PSYCHOL BULL (2012),
Goldenberg, C., Hicks, J., & Lit, I. (2013). Dual language learners: Effective instruction in early child-hood. American Educator, 37(2), 26-29.
[x] Hook, P. E., & Jones, S. D. (2002). The importance of automaticity and fluency for efficient reading comprehension.Perspectives, 28(1), 9-14.
[xi] National Reading Panel report. https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/Pages/smallbook.aspx
[xii] Why What We Teach Depends on When: Grade and Reading Intervention Modality Moderate Effect Size [Article] Suggate SP,DEV PSYCHOL (2010),
[xiii] Murray, M.S. (2016). Language Comprehension Ability: One of Two Essential Components of Reading Comprehension. In K.A. Munger (Ed.), Steps to success: Crossing the bridge between literacy research and practice. Geneseo, NY: Open SUNY Textbooks.
Steps to success: Crossing the bridge between literacy research and practices.
[xiv]Ferrer, E., Shaywitz, B. A., Holahan, J. M., Marchione, K. E., Michaels, R., & Shaywitz, S. E. (2015). Achievement Gap in Reading Is Present as Early as First Grade and Persists through Adolescence. The Journal of pediatrics, 167(5), 1121-1125.
[xv] Reading development subtypes and their early characteristics [Article] [13 different authors],ANN DYSLEXIA (2007),
[xvi] Schneider, W., Roth, E., & Ennemoser, M. (2000). Training phonological skills and letter knowledge in children at risk for dyslexia: A comparison of three kindergarten intervention programs. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(2), 284.
[xvii] Institute of Education Sciences (2015). English language learners. http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgf.asp
Goldenberg, C., Hicks, J., & Lit, I. (2013). Dual language learners: Effective instruction in early child-hood. American Educator, 37(2), 26-29.
[xviii] Tembe, J. (2008). Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the national literacy panel on language-minority children and youth.
[xix] Murray, M.S. (2016). Language Comprehension Ability: One of Two Essential Components of Reading Comprehension. In K.A. Munger (Ed.), Steps to success: Crossing the bridge between literacy research and practice. Geneseo, NY: Open SUNY Textbooks.
Steps to success: Crossing the bridge between literacy research and practices.