Reading Acquisition
[Teacher Tools] [Case Studies]

Students with special needs are in need of consistent, sequential reading instruction. Further, these skills must be taught in an integrated fashion. Providing a framework for educators makes the reading process manageable and interesting for both the teacher and the student.

In the current age of standards, reading is certainly not left out. The National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association have collaborated to provide standards for reading. The standards presume that literacy begins before children enter school as they experience and experiment with reading and writing activities. Thus, they seek to develop the skills that children bring to school. Additionally, the standards are to be taught in an integrated fashion rather than as separate skills. For more information see:

How DOES a child learn to read? This age-old question has beleaguered teachers for years. Over the past 50 years, the pendulum has swung from skill-based (a focus on phonics) to whole language based (a focus on meaning) instruction. For many years, educators took sides about which approach was best for students. More recently, educators have come to realize there is value in both perspectives. In part, this is due to the National Reading Panel's report (2000) identifying 5 essential components of literacy instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, text comprehension and vocabulary. Together, these components make up a balanced literacy approach. In short, for a child to develop into a skilled reader, his reading instruction needs to include a variety of components and instructional techniques.

However, before a teacher can implement the reading components and techniques, she must first decide which type of reader she is working with. Reading acquisition occurs in a stage-like progression (Chall, 1983). Chall (1983) credits Piaget's stages of cognitive development and Perry's study of advanced intellectual and ethical development as the foundation of her work in reading development.

Students with special needs continue to struggle with reading acquisition. Many times they are subjected to a scripted, program approach to reading. Often these scripted programs focus solely on one aspect of literacy while ignoring the others. We need to keep in mind that teachers, not programs, teach children to read. That said, both general and special educators, need to increase their knowledge about the reading process in order to maximize the success of all students.

Most importantly in the journey of reading acquisition is fostering a love of reading. In our own lives, when we like to do something, we do it over and over. The more we practice, the better we get. It is the same with reading. The more a child reads the more proficient he becomes and the more likely he is going to engage in this activity.

A Balanced Framework

Researchers at the McGuffey Reading Center at the University of Virginia describe this balanced approach as one's "literacy diet." This "diet" consists of fluency, word study, comprehension and writing instruction. These are critical aspects in the development of reading (Johnston, Invernizzi and Juel, 1998; Juel, 1996; Morris, 1999). Research supports reading, writing, and spelling as integrated processes (Bear, 1991; Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2004); Moats, 2000). Bear (1991) states, "When one sees that learning to read and write are integrated, developmental processes, then the battles over the methods become absurd" (p. 156). Research by Snow, Burns & Griffin (1998) supports the notion that the successful teaching of reading requires skill instruction, including phonics and phonemics, in conjunction with stimulating authentic and meaningful reading and writing experiences. Therefore, balanced reading instruction should combine phonics instruction with the whole language approach to teach both skills and meaning and to meet the reading needs of individual children (Johnson, 1999). In order for a reader to recognize words automatically, and therefore be able to spend vital mental energy on what the words mean rather than what the words say, he needs to read, write, and spell the same words (Adams, 2001, Bear, 2004). While this point may seem logical, it is often overlooked. For example, if a child is studying short "a" word families, he should be reading text that has words with this feature. Further, he should spend time practicing writing these words. With proper instruction, the processes of reading, writing, and spelling should develop in unison (Bear, et. al, 2004).

Components of a Balanced Approach: Fluency

What is it?

  • Reading smoothly, accurately, quickly and with expression.


Why is it important?

  • Builds automaticity with word recognition
  • Research suggests faster readers tend to have better comprehension and are more proficient readers overall (Rasinski, 2000).


Word Study

What is it?

  • Study of words
  • Developmental spelling approach


Why is it important?

  • "Teaching is not telling" (James, 1958)
  • Word study allows students to internalize word features, rather than memorize rules. Thus allowing them to take the information beyond the isolated classroom lesson and into meaningful text.
  • Learn by categorization, comparing and contrasting (Bear et al, 2004).



What is it?

  • Understanding


Why is it important?

  • The goal of reading is to understand text, not just identify words.
  • Children do not automatically learn how to comprehend information - THEY HAVE TO BE TAUGHT.
  • Meaningful text allows them to make connections between their classrooms to the outside world.



What is it?

  • Exercising word knowledge


Why is it important?

  • Similar to comprehension, good writers need to be developed.
  • Students do not automatically know how to write a good sentence, paragraph, essay, etc. - The writing process needs to be explicitly taught.


Developed by: Sharon E. Green, Ph.D., Emporia State University

The University of Kansas prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, ethnicity, religion, sex, national origin, age, ancestry, disability, status as a veteran, sexual orientation, marital status, parental status, gender identity, gender expression, and genetic information in the university’s programs and activities. Retaliation is also prohibited by university policy. The following persons have been designated to handle inquiries regarding the nondiscrimination policies and are the Title IX coordinators for their respective campuses: Executive Director of the Office of Institutional Opportunity & Access,, 1246 West Campus Road, Room 153A, Lawrence, KS 66045, 785-864-6414, 711 TTY (for the Lawrence, Edwards, Parsons, Yoder, and Topeka campuses); Director, Equal Opportunity Office, Mail Stop 7004, 4330 Shawnee Mission Parkway, Fairway, KS 66205, 913-588-8011, 711 TTY (for the Wichita, Salina, and Kansas City, Kansas, medical center campuses).