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Reading Education Internationally

By William H. Teale
 | Aug 23, 2018
Reading Education InternationallyThe following was written by William H. Teale, a past president of the International Literacy Association, to provide an international perspective on reading education for the Japan Reading Association (JRA). It will be included in a commemorative book later this year produced by JRA to mark their 60th anniversary.

It is reprinted here with JRA’s permission. Teale passed away unexpectedly in February 2018 shortly after completing it. It is the last piece he authored.

2018 marks my 49th year as a reading teacher. I have experienced many developments in reading education in my home country of the United States during that time, and I have observed many other developments as a result of my opportunities to participate in conferences and work with ministries of education and literacy scholars in 25 other countries around the world, including every continent except for Antarctica. This range of experiences I have been fortunate to have was no doubt influenced by my involvement not only in reading education but also in the fields of library and information science, children’s and young adult literature, and adult education. It was also the result of my involvement as an academic and teacher in the field as well as an officer of the International Literacy Association (board member, vice president, president, past president) over a period of six years and an editor and editorial board member of numerous literacy journals in the field.

I list this range of experiences so that you might better contextualize my remarks that follow, remarks intended to provide one international perspective on reading instruction. In doing so, I have not attempted to cover the past 60 years of reading education history which the Japan Reading Association is commemorating, but I do provide some historical context for what I see as major issues confronting us as reading educators who help build our societies by supporting our students in reading and writing so that they might participate as fully as possible as citizens of their countries and of the world.

Thinking both in contemporary terms and historically, I believe it is fruitful to consider that some issues related to reading education are similar across international contexts while others are quite different. In addition, some issues that are important today have been on the minds of reading educators for decades, while other have emerged over the years as a result of social, technological, or political developments.

Reading engagement (motivation to read)

I begin with the topic of reading engagement because it serves as the foundation of reading instruction—at all levels of schooling and in every country in the world. If we are to have any hope at all of succeeding in literacy education, we must get this piece right. It has been well documented for many years that students who spend more time reading achieve better in reading (Anderson, et al., 1988). Why is it that some students read more? Because they are engaged by reading; they get satisfaction from it and find the time that they spend reading to be rewarding.

Many people may think of this issue of engagement as “soft science” or touchy-feely. But you may be familiar with PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, the quantitatively rigorous international assessment that measures 15-year-old students’ reading, mathematics, and science achievement in 64 countries in the world (OECD, 2016). What PISA found about reading engagement is that students who enjoyed reading the most performed significantly better in achievement than students who enjoyed reading the least. This is strong evidence that backs up what all good teachers have seen time and time again in their classrooms: If we pay attention to instilling in students the love of reading, the task of teaching students how to read is made so much easier.

The importance of quality literature

This discussion of reading engagement brings us face to face with the issue of what students are assigned to read for school and what they read on their own. To promote reading engagement, we should be helping our students interact with quality literature—from preschool through high school. That means employing quality literature in the lessons we teach, making sure our school and classroom libraries are stocked with quality literature, recommending quality literature for students’ out-of-school reading, making homework assignments that involve quality literature, and providing parents with recommendations of quality literature that they can obtain for their children.

Think of this as a dietary issue. Children and teenagers grow up healthy when they have a balanced diet of a variety of nutritious foods that supply needed vitamins, minerals, and proteins. Thoughtful minds are fed with a balanced diet of quality literature which includes stories, informational books, and other genres like concept books and poetry; print, digital, and audio books; books about people like them and situations that are familiar as well as books about people from other countries around the world who face a range of life circumstances different from their own; books with spectacular writing; and books with outstanding illustrations or photographs. In one essay I wrote, I went so far as to argue that without a literacy curriculum that includes high-quality literature, it is essentially impossible for students to become fully literate (see the May/June 2017 issue of the International Literacy Association’s publication Literacy Today).

And though the books themselves may differ from country to country or perhaps even from region to region or city to city within a country, the need to have quality literature as an integral part of the literacy curriculum and instruction is universal. Quality literature should play an indispensable role in teaching children to read, no matter who the students are, how old they are, or where they come from.

Effective methods for teaching reading

We have now discussed two issues crucial to reading education that I have argued apply equally across societies and school systems. But, this issue—effective methods for teaching reading—is something that needs to be considered context by context. In the United States, for example, there has been much discussion over the past two decades about research-based, or evidence-based, methods for reading instruction. National panels have been convened by the U.S. Congress to have scholars review the research literature and determine empirically the most effective methods for teaching beginning reading (National Reading Panel, 2000), early literacy (National Early Literacy Panel, 2008), and English language learners (August & Shanahan, 2006). Each of these efforts resulted in conclusions about how to teach reading. But even these rigorous efforts to answer the question of what works instructionally for teaching reading have been questioned by other scholars who point out the failure of such conclusions to take into consideration findings from rigorous qualitative literacy research or contextual factors that have been shown to impact reading instruction and therefore student reading achievement (e.g., see the 2010, vol. 39, no. 4 issue of Educational Researcher).

Now, consider the fact that this much dissension has occurred with respect to reading instruction in one language—English—and in one country. Small wonder, then, that when one looks at different languages, different writing systems, and different societal contexts, there can never hope to be consensus on what the most effective method is for teaching reading.

Much of the research that I conduct focuses on how young children—ages 3 to 6—learn to read and write and can effectively be taught to read and write in an alphabetic language, English. With respect to reading, the most difficult (and therefore the most researched) phase of that process is beginning reading, the time when children learn to “crack the alphabetic code” and understand how the sounds of language relate to the letters and letter combinations of the English alphabet. I’ve even written a chapter for teachers on the complexities of these relationships (see chapter 2 of McKay & Teale, 2015). But I distinctly remember the first time I spoke with a group of Japanese teachers and parents about that work. They were surprised that this was an issue of concern in the United States. To them, that early phase of learning to read was easy. In their experience, even 4-year-olds and most 5-year-olds could figure out how to “decode” the words in simple picture books. But, of course, they were coming from the perspective of a culture with a very different orthography. Hiragana makes it much easier for young children to “crack the code” because it is based on the syllable, not on the much more—for young children—abstract phoneme, as many alphabetic orthographies are. The harder part of learning to read in Japanese comes with Kanji, which occurs much later developmentally for students in Japan than for students in the U.S.

This is but one example illustrating the fact that, for reading educators, the issue of effective methods for teaching reading will always be inextricably tied to the national and local contexts in which the teaching is taking place. There is not, nor will there ever be, one right way of, or a most effective way of, or one best program for teaching reading and writing. Effective literacy instruction depends upon the wisdom of teachers applying what research indicates is effective and what their local classroom context dictates is needed to reach the children they see in front of them every day.

Family involvement/community involvement

The research is clear, consistent, and convincing: When schools succeed in working cooperatively with families, children experience academic and social benefits (Hill, et al., 2004: Jeynes, 2010). And these benefits include enhanced language and literacy for children. The strongest school–family partnerships work both ways. On the one hand, schools communicate with parents about their children’s literacy activities in school and about their progress in literacy. It is also important for the school to engage parents in discussions of how parents can support their children’s literacy learning at home. In the other direction, parents are welcomed into the school for the funds of knowledge and insights that they can bring. This may be special skills a parent has or knowledge about the community that would contribute to studies the children are engaged in or volunteer help in the school or classroom.

But it is also clear that in different societies there are vastly different relations between parents and the schools their children attend. In the United States, most elementary schools are not very successful at working collaboratively with the parents of the children who attend their school or with the larger community in which the school is located. And, the higher up the grade levels one goes, the less parental involvement one finds. Compare this to the types of relations between the school and parents in Japan. This is an important conversation for the school to have: What are the most productive ways that we can engage our families and community? And such a conversation is most successful when both the teachers and the school leaders take part together.

Digital literacies

Computers have been used for instruction in schools for several decades now, but it is only within the past 10 years that digital technologies have profoundly affected reading and reading instruction. What has made the difference is the proliferation of multimedia texts—texts that contain not only print or print and illustration, but also sound and moving images. And our students not only “consume” these texts; they also produce them because of the widespread availability of multimedia authoring tools. I believe it is fair to say that these developments in digital technologies have literally redefined literacy itself and what it means to be literate (NCTE, 2013), significantly changing the way students read, write, and access information.
Furthermore, I also believe that—ultimately—digital technologies will change human thinking. This change will happen in the way that the invention of writing changed human thinking. Before humans had writing, memory was a much more central—and needed—cognitive process. But with writing we had a system that enabled us to store ideas in a permanent way that accurately represented the message of the writer. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the changes in human thinking engendered by the invention of this tool—writing—took place over generations. And so it will be with digital literacy tools; we are only now at the very beginnings of their impact on literacy and on human thinking.

A useful distinction can be drawn between digital skills and digital literacies (see Digital skills focus on how to use technological tools, whereas digital literacies are about the why, when, who, and for whom of such tools. What our students most need today is competencies related to digital literacies: to be able to critically assess digital texts (e.g., does that website contain credible information or is it biased and not factual?) and to compose digital texts that take into consideration the words, images, and sounds that will most effectively communicate with the audience they are addressing.

The impact of digital literacies on school reading instruction first took hold with older students and has gradually affected younger and younger grade levels. Now even preschool and kindergarten children are involved regularly in digital literacies because the biggest game changer of all for younger children—the tablet and its touchscreen technology—has enabled them to participate in ways that keyboard access never did. There is much being debated about “screen time” for young children (Council on Communications and Media, 2016), but the reality is that children today are growing up in their home and school environments interacting with digital technologies on a regular basis.

What this means is that teachers must now respond to the need to ensure that attention to digital literacies is embedded in all levels of literacy education and all curriculum subjects from preschool through high school. And, with respect to this topic, we need to think deeply about the different kinds of reading and writing that students do. When students need to read something deeply, many prefer to read print rather then something on screen. But, digital devices seem to be preferred for “quick” reading—news stories, social networking, looking up a piece of information. But, some texts are only available digitally. And more “buts” can be added as we think through the realities and educational implications of students’ literacy activities, considering also their reading and writing preferences. In the end, though, digital literacies is one of the most important instructional issues related to literacy, as well as being regarded by teachers as a “hot” topic (see results from the International Literacy Association’s 2018 What’s Hot in Literacy Report).


I believe that the preceding five issues—reading engagement, quality literature, effective methods for teaching reading, family and community engagement, and digital literacies—are currently of universal importance to literacy educators and literacy scholars the world over. But they are also local issues in that the literacy educators of Japan need to address them in conjunction with their own contexts, which will inevitably be different from those in Poland, Argentina, Finland, or the United States. Moreover, the contexts within Japan—Urasa, Osaka, Takayama, Sapporo, Tokyo, and so forth—need to be taken into account in thinking about these topics of literacy education. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to literacy education that will serve our students well. High-quality literacy education that helps students be contributing citizens is today, as it has been for the past 60 years and many more, teaching the children we have in our classrooms, rather than any literacy curriculum.


Anderson, R.C., Wilson, P.T., & Fielding, L.G. (1988). Growth in reading and how children spend their time outside of school. Reading Research Quarterly, 23,285–303.
August, D., & Shanahan, T. (2006). Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Council on Communications and Media. (2016). Media and young minds. Pediatrics, 138(5), 1–6.
Hill, N., et al. (2004). Parent academic involvement as related to school behavior, achievement, and aspirations: Demographic variations across adolescence. Child Development, 75(5), 1491–1509.
Jeynes, W. (2010). Parental involvement and academic success. New York: Routledge. 
McKay, R. & Teale, W. H. (2015). Not this but that: No more teaching a letter a week. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Publishing Company.
National Council of Teachers of English. (2013). The NCTE definition of 21st century literacies. Available from
National Early Literacy Panel (2008). Developing early literacy: Report of the National Early Panel. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.
National Reading Panel. (2000). Report of the national reading panel: Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: NICHD & NIH.
OECD. (2016). PISA 2015 results (Vol. 1: Excellence and equity in education. Paris: OECD Publishing. 

William H. Teale, a past president of the International Literacy Association, was a professor of education, a university scholar, and the director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Literacy (CFL). His contributions to the field were immeasurable. Read two of ILA’s tributes to Teale here and here.

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