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Early work on basic skills prevents reading problems

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Most reading problems can be prevented by focusing on basic skills starting in preschool, according to an independent panel of educators.

The report by a special committee of the National Research Council also argues for better teacher preparation."We need the will to ensure that every child has access to excellent preschool environments and well-prepared teachers," said Catherine Snow, the panel's chair and professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Edu-ca-tion.

The report, requested by the Education Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, says no single teaching method is the answer. Although it does not take sides, the report strongly emphasizes the need for children to learn the relationship between letters and sounds.

Many debates on reading have focused on whether phonics or whole language is the best approach. Proponents of phonics say children should learn how to manipulate sounds, break words into parts and understand the relationships between letters and the sounds they make.

Supporters of whole language say children should learn to read by being immersed in literature, keeping journals, writing letters and reading often, both aloud and silently.

The report, touching another controversy, says children whose first language is not English should first learn to read in their native language. The child should be able to speak English reasonably well before learning to read it, the report said.

The report stresses the importance of preschool years, when children learn such things as generating rhymes or breaking words into syllable sounds. With that in mind, the report said poor children and non-native English speakers should have access to affordable, "language-rich," pre-school.

In addition, children should continue to draw connections between sounds and letters, it said.

"Those who have started to read independently, typically at second grade or above, should be encouraged to sound out and identify unfamiliar words," the report said.

Instruction should promote vocabulary, and writing exercises should be given every day. Invented spelling, in which children write words as they sound, can help, the report said, but conventional spelling skills must be developed.

"Primary grade children should spell previously studied words correctly in their final writing products," it said.

The report says reading specialists are important, and it urged that teachers be trained in the relationship between language and reading. Many teachers now are inadequately prepared, it said.