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 Snowe, the panel's chairperson and a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
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, it 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.
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, the report said.
"Volunteer tutors can be helpful in giving kids practice in reading for fluency, but are unlikely to be able to deal effectively with children who have serious reading problems," the report said.
By ROBERT GREENE, AP Education Writer. ©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed