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The One Thing I Want My Grandchildren’s Teachers to Know About Reading

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The One Thing I Want My Grandchildren’s Teachers to Know About Reading

On a blustery, cool, March morning in 2005, my first grandchild, Evie, arrived.  Naturally I was elated with the prospect of cuddling, rocking, and reading to her.  Fast-forward a few years and, with the addition of three grandsons, our house tends to rock on its foundation when all four are visiting!!

The grandma in me is pleased that they enjoy our read-aloud time.  I love to read to each of them and discover their favorite stories and characters. Eventually, I hope they love to read as much as I do.  Evie and I already have opportunities to read the same book and have fabulous conversations about the characters, the different settings and story problems, and, of course, how we think the story will end.

The reading specialist in me knows, however, that their brains were only hard-wired to talk.  Learning to talk is a natural consequence of living in a talking environment, given a child can hear.  Reading, on the other hand, does not happen naturally, even though a child may live in a very literate environment.

The one thing (principle) I want teachers to know: Don’t expect my grandchildren to learn to read by doing what expert readers do. 

If I want a child to learn a skill, it might seem natural to encourage him to imitate someone who already knows how to do what I want him to do.  So if I want kids to know how to drive, I might find someone who is an excellent driver and start training them with the driving methods this person uses.  Sounds logical, but it is likely a mistake because there are huge differences between how expert drivers and novice drivers think. 

With the increased rigor of the Common Core the question, “How should we teach children to read?” is increasingly critical.  If you consider, for instance, that eye movement data shows that expert readers read by recognizing entire words, it might suggest that students be taught that method from the start, because that’s how good readers read. However, novices need to learn the basic skills that the expert uses automatically.  Expecting a child to read leveled books, in which we find words made up of basic and advanced consonants, consonant digraphs, as well as short and long vowels, vowel teams, r-controlled vowels and multi-syllable words, typically BEFORE a student has a solid understanding of these phonics skills, will rob them of the opportunity to learn the basic “driving” skills and encourage guessing.     

At the 2013 Kansas MTSS Symposium, Anita Archer cautioned the use of leveled books before second grade for most students.  Instead, she encouraged the systematic teaching of phonemic awareness and phonics and the use of decodable text to allow the child to practice their driving.  Rather than prompt a child to figure out an unknown word by thinking about what word “makes sense” or what word makes sense that begins with the letter –g, for example, the child will possess the necessary skills to decode each word.  By and large, it’s the only way that children in third grade and above can be successfully read increasingly complex text and DRIVE LIKE THE EXPERT.     

If, by chance, you teach one of my grandchildren as they’re learning to read, I hope you’ll think of the expert driver.  Please remember, he used to drive the way the novice drives, and doing so was a necessary step on the way to becoming an expert. 

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