*Helping Kids to Read*
09 October 2003
I have a friend who is one of those "perpetual student" types. Heís a graduate student at Cornell studying neural pathway development in language acquisition and reading decoding in young children. Heís been doing the research for his doctorate for 12 years. The other day we were sitting talking and he said "After all this time studying it, learning to read is still pretty a much a mystery from a brain research standpoint." Think of it - learning to take little symbols and translate them into sounds and meanings? Pretty amazing isnít it.
Recently someone was asking about reading development in their youngster. It matters to us all as home schoolers or as concerned parents. And there is a lot we do know about learning to read. One thing we know is this Ė kids learn at different times and at different rates. Iíve seen it over and over again with the thousands of kids I work with in a public school setting. Mary can read fluently at age 4 and comes to Kindergarten reading. Tommy tries hard but canít read at all until half way through second grade. By fourth grade theyíre equal in reading. If there is nothing wrong with his cognitive mental ability, itís hard to say to Tommyís parents "Just wait, heíll catch up" but itís true.
Another thing we do we know is that learning to read is really five separate dimensions, all of which need equal time and attention for the reading instruction to really work. What are they? They are Phonological & Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension. Anyone who really knew anything about reading could have told you that the "whole language" fad from a few years ago was doomed to fail because that addressed just one of the dimensions. The same is true with most of those phonics programs around. Some are very good programs and help a lot, but they only go so far because learning to read well is made up of all five of the dimensions. If your child is in public school and their teacher isnít up on this then they really do not know the very latest about reading theory or teaching reading. And if youíre a home schooler or concerned parent then you should know this because it helps make the learning to read process more understandable.
So what does all that gobbledygook mean? Well one at a time:
Phonological & Phonemic Awareness Ė Phonemic Awareness is the simple awareness that sounds make up language. Phonological Awareness is the awareness of the constituent sounds of words, syllables, beginning and ending sounds, rhymes etc. These things are the first things to occur before being able to learn to read. Young children learn to speak to make their needs understood, long before they realize that words are made up of the same sounds combined in different ways and what the whole list of possible sounds are for their language. Learning to read takes a lot of verbal practice first. Kids who come from homes where there is very little adult interaction or talking take much longer to learn to read because they arenít exposed to as much language. Start with word games, "What rhymes with cat (bat, rat, fat)", "name some words that start with S", "End with T", "Have a B sound in them". Weíve all played these games with kids, but if you have a struggling reader the word games are even more important. Donít just concentrate on the reading a book part, work on sounds and language too!
So after we know that words are made of sounds and we can hear the sounds in the words, what next?
Phonics Ė Phonics is connecting speech sounds to written language. This is the process of actually decoding the symbols (letters) of written language to sounds. This is sounding out words and matching the sounds into a whole word. Weíve all done this with young kids too. "Now sound it out" we say. "ST ÖOÖ.P Ė Stop, very good." Well to "sound it out" requires that they understand the letters of the English alphabet, all 26 upper and lower case and what sounds they can stand for. Then the combinations of those letters like st and dr, pr, etc. and what additional sounds those combinations can stand for. The letter or combination of letters to sound correspondence understanding is critical at this point and really starts the reading adventure. Flash cards with letters that you flash to have them say the sounds are a good learning tool at this point. They canít sound out every word so memorizing a few short 1, 2 or 3 letter words from a beginners word list will get them started and then you can use those words written down to show that the letters stand for sounds. You should have a beginners word list of about 100 words that they try to memorize and Iím pretty sure that there is one here on the site.
Once your child has a few short words sight memorized and is able to sound out longer words phonetically, they are starting to read. But they are struggling you say? They canít read smoothly. They canít remember words from one page to the next. They arenít doing well in spelling at all. Well next is:
Fluency Ė Fluency is when they start to achieve speed and accuracy in recognizing words and comprehending connected text and coordinating the two. Try this with a beginning reader Ė after the child reads the words off the page take the book, flip around the pages but in the end flip back to the page theyíve just read. Now hand them the book back and ask them to read the page again. They will read it just like they did the first time, sounding out the same words and struggling in the same places. "But they just read it 30 seconds ago," you say to yourself. Doesnít matter to a new reader. Until they have developed fluency they literally donít have the neural pathways developed in their brains to do the decoding. There are some strategies that will help to develop fluency. One is simply reading. The more they read the more fluent they will become. But there are others that work remarkably well too. Echo reading is one way. You read a phrase or a sentence out loud and then have them echo it out loud after you. Be sure they are reading the words and following along from the book not just repeated what you said. Choral reading is another strategy that works very well. Read the same passage out loud together at the same time. Lastly, partner reading where you read one sentence and they read the next, again all out loud. Try for smoothness and very short time lapse between partners. These strategies help to build the connection to the text and recognition of the words. Lastly, read the books over and over again in the beginning. Just like you did when they were pre-readers and enjoyed knowing what was coming next and hearing the same words over from the same book, have them reread the same book as a reader. They will build fluency and confidence that way.
The next dimension is:
Vocabulary Ė I think we all know what vocabulary is. Itís the list of words we know and use every day to communicate. To be a good reader means that we have an expanded vocabulary with which to work. It helps us to recognize words easier and faster. It helps us not to struggle or lose our train of thought when we are reading and that is important if we are just starting to learn to read anyway. I think I wrote an article about vocabulary building not too long ago but there are some things you can do that need repeating. Having a word wall at home is maybe the best. Add words around the house. Like the Readerís Digest vocabulary builder for adults, there should be a list of vocabulary words around for new readers to see and hear and discuss. Discussing what they are reading after they have read a short book or a passage is important too. They should hear the concepts expressed in different words. "What does slithered mean?", "Why did me moan?", "Was the grandmother a homemaker?" Questions are important in developing vocabulary.
So now the fluency is starting to develop and the vocabulary is getting stronger. Whatís next?
Comprehension Ė Comprehension is the ability to accurately understand what is written or said, to grasp the intended meaning. This only comes over time and is helped most be two main helping/teaching strategies. Having a wide variety of reading materials is one of them. It has been shown that kids with exposure to a wide variety of materials meaning magazines, newspapers, books, paperbacks, hardcover, pamphlets, etc. have better reading comprehension. They work harder to understand what is being said in the different types of materials to see if something different is being conveyed in each type of reading material. That helps them to build overall comprehension skills. The second helper is questioning. After they read something to you, question them about it. "What was your favorite part?", "Why did the grandma have to move away?", "When do you think the dog will come home?" These questions will frustrate young reader a little but will also help them to make the comprehension connections that they need to develop.
So thatís reading in a nutshell. We first learn to make and hear individual sounds, then we learn that those sounds can be represented by marks and symbols. We progress to become fluent at reading the symbols and mentally translating them into sounds. We then expand the vocabulary of connected sounds we know and are familiar with and finally we gain increased understanding of the meaning of the mental images we create from the mental sounds. As mature readers we do all this without thinking, but it really is a miraculous process. An understanding of the whole background process can take some of the frustration out of teaching someone to read or dealing with a slow learner. I say to home schoolers and parents helping their children Ė MARVEL in the wonder of what youíre teaching that brain to accomplish!
Now get out and read Ė oops I mean practice!
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