There is an unusual degree of consensus regarding the goals of early reading instruction. The consensus is captured in the National Research Council report, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (National Research Council, 1998) and in the report of the National Reading Panel, Teaching Children to Read (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). The goals are often expressed in terms of the competencies children should be able to demonstrate at the end of third grade: (a) reading age-appropriate literature independently with pleasure and interest, (b) reading age-appropriate explanatory texts with comprehension for the purpose of learning, and (c) talking and writing about those texts in age-appropriate ways. Achieving these goals requires simultaneous development of an interdependent set of abilities: decoding skills, reading fluency, oral language development, vocabulary development, comprehension skills, and the ability to encode speech into writing.
The foundation for early reading lies in the earlier, informal acquisition of language. With little effort, children with intact neurological systems acquire the sounds of their language, its vocabulary, and its methods of conveying meaning (National Research Council, 1998). The path that children travel in acquiring language is predictable (National Research Council, 1998), although the age at which particular skills and abilities are mastered varies somewhat. Babies comprehend words during the first year of life generally well before they can produce them. Once production begins, usually during the second year, vocabulary grows steadily, and single word utterances become sentences that increase in length and complexity. As the ability to produce and understand more complex sentences develops, children are less reliant on the immediate context to support