Learning to read is such a complex and individual process that at times it feels like magic.
I went to kindergarten in 1971. We played outside. We played in centers. We did crafts and learned about the five senses. My first grade teacher was brand spankin’ new out of college. She divided the room into reading groups; the Blue Birds, Red Birds, and Yellow Birds. I was in the Yellow Birds, the lowest group.
I might even have been one of the lowest members of the lowest group. We did worksheets and read from the reader. I still didn’t get it. At some point during that year, I went to three days of private testing. The report came back: Dyslexia.
In May, my teacher explained that I needed to go to summer school and, even then, might need to repeat first grade in the fall. She told my mother, “You have to understand, just because you have one gifted child doesn’t mean the other one will be as well.”
I remember having to leave my best friend Blake to walk to the school every afternoon that summer. I had a session with the special education teacher. After that summer, I did go on to second grade, and I wasn’t in the lowest group either. By third grade I was in the highest group. By fifth grade I was in the gifted program. From that point on, reading has been second only to breathing in my life.
What in the world did that special education teacher do that summer? What magic did he work that changed my educational fortune forever?
He spent the entire summer having me read out loud to him. He didn’t teach me any phonics. He didn’t have me do worksheets or learn spelling rules. I just read, day after hot summer day. And by the time fall arrived, I was fluent.
I started teaching kindergarten during the “Whole Language” movement. We had a grant from The University of Texas to implement “Language to Literacy.”
Phonics was no longer a required part of the curriculum, but we were still free to supplement with it if we chose.
Part of the mystery of reading is that some children really do pick it up from merely having a print-rich environment and being exposed to great literature. Others are more analytical and need the process broken down into sequential steps.
I’ve taught both kind of kids. I’ve given birth to both kind of kids. And here is what I know: both kinds get to a point where they CAN read but are not yet fluent.
It is at this point that they often say that they don’t like reading. They understand how the process works, but almost every word is laborious. It is a tragedy to me, that some people spend their entire lives in this stage and never get to the fun part, the magical part.
It is pretty obvious that a child who isn’t fluent needs more practice reading. I often give my kids a reading hour, in which they settle into a comfy spot with a cup of tea and an interesting book. This has its place, particularly if the book is a little below their reading level. This really doesn’t work with emergent readers. The most simple books are still a challenge.
The problem with having them read to the dog while I cook dinner is that when they come to a word they don’t know, they skip over it or substitute a word that means something completely different. This results in a book that makes no sense. I’m asking them to do the hard work of sounding out words without getting the payoff of a coherent story.
So I’m sure you have guessed that I’m going to tell you to have your child read out loud to you each day. And you are right. That is what I am going to say. I think this is a critical step on the road to reading fluency.
I’m a busy mom. Sometimes I have to cook dinner or drive a different kid to lessons. Sometimes I ask other adults to have my emergent reader read a book to them. Sometimes visitors are so excited about the new reader that they request to be read to. I’ve noticed a few mistakes that they make.
1. Asking the child to read for too long. If these sessions are daily, they do not need to be long. I keep a sticky note in each book. When I see my child lagging and getting tired, I tell her that we will read a little more tomorrow.
2. Expecting the child to track their place without help. I always use my finger or a pencil to track which word or part of the word that the child is on. Tracking will come in time, but if I do it for them, it is one less thing they have to focus on when they are trying to extract meaning from the text.
3. Turning the session into a phonics lesson. If the child is stuck on a word, now is not the time to ask, “What does this e at the end of the word do?” You just broke the fluency of the story. Now is the time to just supply the word and make a mental note to review the phonics rule at a later time.
4. Allowing the child to continue reading after saying the wrong word. I often hear reading specialists advising parents not to correct emergent readers at this point. I could not disagree more. A child who is taught that one word is just the same as another and either one works just as well will have a very hard time being able to read and write with precision in the upper grades.
One last thing that I do because young children have such short attention spans is recap what we have read if I think they have lost the gist of the story.
If we only read part of a book, the next day, I will read the part that they read the day before and have them pick up from there, but I will also reread a page they just read if I think they got lost before we go on to the next page.
This sounds complicated, but really it isn’t. I’ve included a short video of my kindergartener reading to me. She falls in the middle between my kids who seem to pick of reading from the air around them, and my kids who need a little extra time to get the hang of it.
One thing I’m sure of – if I’m diligent, she will soon join the ranks of voracious readers. To me, that is pure magic.
Genevieve–is a former public and private school teacher who has five children and has been homeschooling for the past thirteen years. In her free time she provides slave labor to Dancing Dog Dairy, making goat milk soap and handspun yarn, which can be seen on Our Facebook Page and at Dancing Dog Dairy .