Northwest NEWS

May 27, 2002


Guest Editorial: About kids and reading

by Karen Lytle Blaha
   "Patience." That, says Dr. Paul Palm, director of the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory's
   Comprehensive Education Center, is one of the most helpful approaches for parents to take when helping their young learners to aquire reading skills. He quickly follows up with two more suggestions: Practice. Persistence.
   As director of a regional center that works to help ensure that all students are provided opportunities to meet challenging state content and performance standards, Palm underscores the fundamental need for children to learn to become competent readers when they are in the primary grades.
   Palm points to findings from the National Reading Panel that examined more than 100,000 studies in a quest to discover the best research information on teaching young children to read. The work of the panel distilled five critical areas: phonemic awareness phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. "I'm not a reading specialist," Palm said, "and most parents aren't either, but you don't have to be to understand these important keys to learning to be a good reader. Parents like to be clued in where they can, especially when gaining an understanding helps them to help their child.
   "It gets down to this: Spoken language is made up of discrete sounds (phonemes) organized into utterances that represent meaning. To communicate on an additional level, we make marks on paper that represent these sounds; we call them letters. We arrange the letters in combinations that make up words - many, many words. And then we arrange the words in a particular order. Someone else can look at our "marks" and "arrangements" and know pretty much what we mean by them, what' we're communicating. It's reading.
   A child's realization that there is a correspondence between the sounds that we put together in an organized way - talking - and the shapes that we make to represent those sounds - writing - is a crucial relational recognition in learning to read.
   "Learning to read takes a lot of effort on the child's part," says Palm, "and effort by teachers and parents as well. It's a very complex process. Very young readers are working on learning 'the code,' that is, the relationship between letters, their combinations, and the related sounds (phonics) that end up as meaning. It's pretty tricking just to get to that point. And then to become an effortless reader who can recognize numerous words (vocabulary), groups of words, and understand the meaning of it all in what seems like a nanosecond, is quite an achievement (fluency and comprehension). Like most worthwhile achievements, it takes practice and persistence, and a generous portion of patience."
   (See U.S. Department of Education Web site [] for Reading First resources.)
   This column by Karen Lytle Blaha is provided as a public service by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, a nonprofit institution working with schools and communities in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington.