Teaching Kids To Read
You might assume I know something about teaching kids to read. I studied English at UCLA and obtained my master’s in education at The City College of NY. I taught special education grades 5-8 for 7 years, and I’ve supported schools and teachers throughout the Bronx with K-8 ELA instruction over the past 3 years.
Yet you’d be wrong. I’ve come to realize I know next to nothing.
In case you haven’t been aware, there’s been a firestorm of educators on platforms like Twitter gaining newfound awareness of the science of reading, with an urgent bellows inflamed by the ace reporting of Emily Hanford. For a great background on this movement, with links, refer to this post by Karen Vaites. And make sure you check out Hanford’s most recent podcast (as of today!!! It’s amazing!) outlining how current classroom practice is misaligned to research.
Impelled by this burgeoning national and international conversation, I’ve sought to educate myself about the science of reading. I began with Mark Seidenberg’s Language at the Speed of Sight, took a linguistics course, and have just completed David Kilpatrick’s Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. Seidenberg is not only pithy, but furthermore impassioned, while Kilpatrick is deeply versed in both the research and application in practice as a former school psychologist. Both experts provide an incendiary takedown of more than a few sacred cows in the educational establishment.
It’s been fascinating to learn more about the science of reading while simultaneously working with a school where I could see problems elucidated by reading researchers and advocates play out in real-time. It has made what I’m learning gain an even greater sense of urgency. I would read pages critiquing the “three-cueing system” and balanced literacy approaches on the bus in the morning, then walk into classrooms where I saw teachers instructing students, when uncertain about a word, to use guessing strategies such as “look at the picture” and the “first letter of the word,” rather than stress the need to be able to decode the entire word (for more on the problems with current classroom practice,
Reading Can Be Simple
First off, though reading is complicated, it can be outlined by a simple model, known aptly enough as The Simple View of Reading. It can even be put into the form of an equation. The theory was first developed in 1986 by researchers Gough and Tunmer. The original formulation was D (decoding) X LC (linguistic or language comprehension) = Reading Comprehension.
After years of further research, this distinction has mostly held up, though it has become greatly expanded, especially in our understanding of what constitutes language comprehension.
Decoding has been clarified as one umbrella aspect of word-level reading, which is composed of many sub-skills. A more updated formula, courtesy of Kilpatrick, is:
Word Recognition X Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension.
If you struggle with word recognition (such as with dyslexia), or if you struggle with language comprehension (English language learner), then you have difficulty reading.
Why is The Simple View of Reading important?
Having a clear model for reading comprehension means we have a guide for aligned assessment, prevention, and intervention. Unfortunately, many schools base ELA instruction primarily on state assessments, which tell you very little about a student’s reading needs. People seem to forget that the function of a state assessment is for school, district, and state level accountability, not to direct classroom instruction.
A friend said to me recently, “Movies and television feed you the story. Other mediums make you work for it."
I want my children to work for it.
Don't get me wrong. We watch movies, we watch TV and we have a great time doing that. But I also want my children to grow up believing that reading is a normal part of everyday life.
I want to equip my children with minds that are adept at reading and writing, imagining and creating. I want them to be familiar with the mental and emotional process of reading books. I believe that a love of reading is a gift that will improve the quality of their life for all of their days.
I have three avid readers now. My children are 12, 9, 5 and 3. One child has been a fluent reader since she was 4. One child was 8 before he would read comfortably on his own. One child became a fluent reader at 5. My 3-year-old does not read yet but she will listen quietly to the chapter books I read to her and her siblings and the board books she picks out for me to read to her at night.
Here are seven ways we have encouraged reading in our home.
1. Let your kids see you reading.
Our children are our shadows, our mimickers. Let them see mom and dad reading often. Talk to them about the books you are reading. Tell them why you read. As parents, we create our children's normal. If they see mom and dad reading daily, they will believe that reading every day is a normal way of living life.
2. Do not pressure your children to read by a certain age.
Our oldest child read at four. She learned to read on her own with very little direct instruction from us. Our second child was eight before he had any interest in reading on his own. When he turned five then six then seven we had moments when we were tempted to panic or get frustrated. There were days we wondered if he would ever become a fluent reader and we questioned what we were doing wrong. But our goal was not to teach him to read by a certain age.
Our goal was to teach him to love to read. We navigated those waters carefully, backing off lessons when he would get frustrated while responding attentively when he would express interest in practicing. The older he got, the better he got and now he will disappear for hours at a time, usually to be found in his room or on the couch reading a book. Be patient. Have faith. Do not allow pressure and stress to enter the reading equation.
3. Read to them—a lot.
We read books every night before bed from the time they were babies. We read during our school day and listen to audiobooks when we are in the car. We teach them to read first by exposure more than direct instruction. Read to them every day. Read books you love and they love. Your consistency and enthusiasm will pay off.
4. Go to the library.
We have been visiting the library about once a week for almost a decade now. The library is a magical place. I feel it every time I am there. My children feel it too. Being surrounded by so many beautiful books—drinking in the sights and smells and possibilities—fills us with wonder and reignites our desire to read and discover. Take them to the library. Let them pick out books to bring home. Get them a library card. Yes, it may take them a while to learn to be quiet but they will learn! And it will be worth it.
5. Make books readily available to them.
Provide them with books they love and enjoy (especially while they are still learning how to read). Find a series they love and let them just read that series for a while. Remember that your first goal is to teach them to love to read. As they get older that can become a great foundation for their required reading as well.
6. Let them take books to bed... just books.
At times my kids will ask to take an iPod or a toy to bed. But we continually steer them back to books. Most nights my three oldest can be found with a lamp or flashlight on, ending their day with a book. The sight of them settled in bed with a book fills my heart to bursting.
7. Make time for reading.
It is easy to over schedule. It is easy to spend countless hours on screens. Slow down enough and turn the screens off long enough to make space for reading. Every once in a while my children make the mistake of saying they are bored. My first response is usually to suggest they clean the house. Sometimes they do. More often, I will find them reading a book.
I hope these ideas help you and your children on your journey towards a life and love of reading. The possibilities, the adventure, the knowledge await!