Don’t schools teach children to read?

I’m starting off with a disclaimer. This blog is not about blaming schools. Most teachers care. They work hard and sacrifice much to help children learn. I know. I used to be a teacher. And I have friends and relatives who are teachers. Schools care about children learning to read. They make sure teachers spend appropriate amounts of time on that skill. But today’s teachers work in inclusive classrooms with many children. Some kids need more than the usual amount of time and attention. In the current economy, state and local governments struggle to provide teachers with additional resources to help with such students. Good, caring people are frustrated because they became teachers to make a difference by helping children learn. They know how important reading is – not just in school but throughout life.

It’s true that many children become basic readers without too much difficulty. Over time, and with sufficient exposure to print, they see enough words to identify patterns. But a shockingly low number of children become skilled readers. I looked at the 2016 4th grader reading performance in 58 countries. Those children took the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). The US didn’t do so well, when compared to other countries. When I thought about how many activities require some amount of reading… well, results are results. If my child is not developing good, age-appropriate reading skills, trusting “the system” to come through in the end feels too risky.

But it is hard to know what to do. We parents are not the experts in this area, right? If we are not a teacher – or not a reading teacher – we may not feel qualified to do anything. So, we wait. And then one day we get that letter. Or that call. Or have that conversation during a parent-teacher conference. It’s tough to ignore the situation once that happens.

Too often, by the time we hear that our child is doing poorly – possibly even failing – he/she is already behind. And unless there is a learning disability diagnosis, accommodations are rarely available. Meanwhile our child continues falling behind. Month after month. Only now, unlike in the earlier school years, we see that poor reading doesn’t just affect one subject. By now, it is affecting lots of areas.

So, I decided to empower myself. It turned out that there were some very basic things I could do – both with my child who was having difficulties and younger ones who were not yet in school. I decided I wanted to help them be as ready as they could be to learn that important skill.

For my preschool children, I took some time each day to:

Have a conversation. Obviously, the specifics depend upon the child’s age. Any subject that will capture their interest for a few minutes will do – the important point is to talk to them and have them talk back to you. I must confess that it did take some thinking on my part – I was used to talking to them, but it usually involved giving instructions or telling them to stop doing something!

Play with sounds. Play rhyming word games. I started with giving them choices. I asked “What rhymes with cat? Is it fish or bat?” Once the kid could identify the correct word, I started making him/her come up with his/her own words: “Give me a word that rhymes with boat!” I’ll admit that sometimes the result wasn’t a “real” word – just something that sounded like it! Later, we switched to emphasizing the first sound of a simple word (like cat or hat). I’d say “Hhhhhhh -at.” My child had to listen and say the h sound back to me.

Read lots of books aloud. I’d run my finger under each word as I said it. I wanted my child to see that when I saw this group of letters, a word came out of my mouth. I tried to make reading a special time. Sometimes I would play games with a favorite book (like How the Grinch Stole Christmas) by reading most of a sentence and having someone else fill in the last word or two. Or we’d count the number of words in a sentence. Or draw a picture of what that the story was about.

Teach the names of the alphabet letters. I started with capital letters and then moved to lower case. I used cards, magnetic letters, even apps on my kindle. When my kids knew the letters in order, I started mixing them up. When they got really good, I started asking questions like, “What letter comes after t?” My goal was for them to be able to tell me without having to start saying the alphabet from the beginning.

Teach the sounds associated with each letter. It’s important to be sure you are saying the sounds correctly. I was taught to read using phonics and discovered as an adult that there were a few I wasn’t saying correctly. Before beginning this step, I found it helpful to be sure I was saying the sound for each letter properly. I found this link to be very helpful in saying alphabet sounds correctly

Once I had done this a few times, it was easy to incorporate these activities into my day. It didn’t take long with my preschool kids – maybe 15 – 20 minutes each day. And I could break it up so it wasn’t done in one long block of time. We talked and played rhyming games in the car. Books were a before bed activity (what child doesn’t look for ways to stay up a bit later?).

My school-aged child needed some different strategies. Here are some of the things I did. I:

  • Developed a relationship with my child’s teacher. I explained that I was very interested in my child’s progress. I wanted to support the work in the classroom and help my child. I didn’t want the report card to be a shock but rather like a (good) job performance evaluation. It tells you what you already know in terms of successes and challenges. That approach usually worked.
  • Asked my child to read aloud to me. I paid attention when my children refused to read aloud. Children who struggle with reading usually hate to be asked to do that. We started with grade-level books to get an idea of his/her ability. Depending upon how he/she was doing, we switched to easier or harder books if the reading level was wrong. I wanted the time together to be fun, so we took turns reading pages and started with books that he/she found interesting. It just took about 5 – 10 minutes.
  • Listened carefully and with patience (not always easy!) to the reading. I wanted to know if the reading was accurate. What did he/she do with an unknown word (Guess? Try to sound it out?). Did the reading sound smooth? Was the pace appropriate? Did he/she read with expression or was the tone flat?
  • Read aloud to him/her. I was surprised – just because my child didn’t read well at that time didn’t mean he/she didn’t like to hear stories. I realized that children who struggle with reading can grow to love books too.
  • Read plays (or graphic comics) once he/she became more skilled. Once my kids became skilled enough, it was fun to explore plays and appropriate graphic comics. Each person could play a different character, so everyone participated. We found it fun and it was a great way to let the kids experiment with using expression when they read.

These simple steps helped us. I hope they help you too! Drop me a line and let me know.

Reference List

Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight: how we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it. New York: Basic Books.