Teachers have long recognized the critical importance of reading. Because reading is essential to all the subject areas, we know that reading achievement is a major predictor of children's academic success. In light of recent legislation, the teaching of reading has now taken center stage in the national debate about education in the United States.

As you prepare your lesson plans for this school year, it is difficult to think about reading instruction without keeping in mind the new federal legislation. The No Child Left Behind Act will have a profound impact on literacy issues, particularly through its "Reading First" initiatives. The initiative is designed to help every child in every state become a successful reader. Nearly $1 billion is being dedicated to support this new reading effort for the 2002-03 school year. More funding will be earmarked for the next school year.

Five essential components of reading form the basis of Reading First: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Although Reading First focuses on kindergarten to grade 3, teachers at all grade levels are likely to feel its effects. The following is a brief overview of Reading First and some advice to keep in mind as you prepare for the year ahead.

Reading First vs. Other Initiatives

Reading First requires educators to be much more intentional and strategic in our approach to reading instruction. We're being asked to measure more specific outcomes than in the past.

Teachers must now base decisions on scientifically-designed, empirical research, rather than on qualitative case studies. It's no longer enough to teach or assess reading in a general way. Teachers are being asked to target the particular aspects of reading that need to be addressed in classrooms and to identify research-based methods that will make a difference in those areas.

Literature as a Tool

Children need to practice all five of the essential components identified in Reading First in order to become proficient readers. Literature is a tool that provides that practice, says literacy specialist Linda Cornwell. The more authentic the literature, she explains, the more authentic the practice.

"It's fine for kids to be introduced to basic skills through tightly controlled reading experiences," says Cornwell, "but they need to extend these experiences to real world texts in order to refine and solidify those skills."

Putting It in Perspective

Reading First has set a course for reading instruction that all teachers will be urged to follow in the years ahead. It is essential to keep in mind, however, that none of the areas above constitutes a complete reading program. While students need to develop basic skills in order to become proficient readers, these skills will be meaningless unless students also want to read. In that respect, our job as teachers remains what it has always been — to instill in children a genuine love of reading, and to help each child develop the skills he or she needs in order to nurture that love.

Find Out More

To learn more about current reading research and legislation, visit the following Internet sites:

Center for Improvement of Early Reading Achievement

International Reading Association

National Reading Panel

No Child Left Behind

Reading First