Friday, March 26, 2010

Secrets Parents Need to Know About Beginning Reading

Kathy Stemke, the Educationtipster on Blogspot, recently called for an interview which you'll find posted on her blog.  I always appreciate any opportunity to reach out and communicate to parents with children of all ages and certainly do this one.

One of the comments on the blog asked questions that would require too long an answer on the comment segment of Kathy's blog so I'm jumping over here to give it a go.  Her questions were:

What are your views on the various techniques for teaching reading?

How have they changed over the years?

What's most effective with children who have reading difficulties?

I certainly won't offer an entirely comprehensive answer here but enough to get you started and heighten understanding.


One of the wisest people in reading research today (Dr. Richard Allington) tells us that "there are many roads to reading".  One size does not fit all.  Different individuals come to reading through different mechanics.  And reading is a multi-level complex set of skills rather than just one so it takes years to reach true competency.  Part of the importance of partnerships between school and home is decyphering those needs and addressing them as needed with each individual youngster. 

Children need to understand the alphabetic principal early on (knowledge of letters and shapes, their understanding that print has unique meaning and that letters represent sounds in our spoken language).  As they gain the connection between letters and sounds, they now have the beginning tool to figure out the squiggles on the page.  There is an excellent explanation of this part of reading on Reading Rockets in their First Year Teacher segment and it's devoid enough of education lingo to be of value to non-educator parents.

It Starts Long Before . . .

The truth is that the strongest readers are created from day one in a cocoon of language and experience with print.  As I've often said, that doesn't mean creating a structured academic hothouse at home.  It doesn't mean buying workbooks and sitting your 4-7 year old down at the table to work.  It means experiencing literacy in all its forms in our world.  If we could just get that right at the beginning, are consistent (just as we are in giving our children good nutrition or adequate exercise), and combine it with strong phonics instruction, we would virtually eliminate reading difficulties by first or second grade. 

So my message to parents is always, "be the commercial for reading".  Show children how interesting, how much fun reading is and, as Bob Keeshan AKA Captain Kangaroo says (I'm showing my age), "They will follow as the night follows the day."  Read in front of them (not just novels, cereal boxes, street signs, bill boards).  Show them that reading and writing are tools for life and show them that every day.

Again, regardless of the method used to teach reading at the beginning, those with such experiences will have an easier time acquiring beginning skills if they have a strong foundation in oral language and exploration and interaction (not conventional reading) with print. 

Having said that, the best scientific research we have in education today says that most children respond most positively to the instructional "learn to read" components of kindergarten and first grade through an method known as phonics (learning the correlation between letter and letter combos and sounds, then applying those in blending those sounds into words that connect to our spoken vocabulary or become a new term we understand).  The good news is that virtually every school in the U.S. (public or private) teaches children to read that way.   

So phonics instruction is important.  With these numbers, that's the first approach to use.  But it is important for both parents and educators to look beyond phonics if a child isn't getting it after an adequate period of time.  Have a parent-teacher conference to discuss progress, alternatives, and come up with a plan together, teacher and family.

In such occasional instances where phonics truly isn't the best way for your child to learn to read, it's better to encourage alternative approaches (sight word reading or memorizing the "shapes" and "patterns", going back to the foundations needed for phonics, phonological awareness - how the patterns in our oral language work without the connection to print).  For a lot of children, those are not as efficient a means so make sure, along with your child's teacher, that phonics really isn't for your child before moving on to alternatives. 

That could be a whole other topic and, in fact, I give definitions of some of these terms in an earlier posting on my blog.  Listen to the child and find ways that they can be successful at reading, not forcing them into a mold if they are the minority who don't learn to read with phonics.  Some children even develop an "organic" sense of how the patterns and sounds in our language work with no formal instruction in phonics, combine it with other strategies (figuring out words from picture clues, recognizing some words on sight, etc.).


Now for perhaps the most important message in this blog: 

phonics or any other beginning reading strategy for "figuring out words" is only a tool.  
It is not reading.  

And phonics is something that, once learned, should then serve as a tool to successfully decode words enough times that those words then become automatic, almost a sight word - one we recognize on sight rather than having to dissect it each time it is encountered.  The mistake too many educators make is an over-focus on phonics.  They stay on it too long rather than having the big picture in mind and moving children to that next level.  That's when children get the idea that they must decode each word they encounter, even if they already know it on sight and that actually disables reading growth or at least deters it.  That's also where you see motivation decline because how much fun is "manipulating phonemes"?

Reading is getting the meaning out of print.  So in addition to phonics instruction, children need a steady diet of great stories read aloud to them and shared one on one as well as in small and whole group.  Families can have a great influence here, especially if your child is in a school where the phonics is isolated and overemphasized and no read alouds of delicious stories that are not easily decodable occurs.  What's the benefit?  Children get that big picture:  they are exposed to complex sentence structure, new vocabulary, the sound of a fluent reader sounding like he/she is talking when she reads, they get the meaning because 100% of their little brains are freed to understand the story rather than being divided between decoding (which can take up most of the brain power early one) and comprehension.  Then they get the idea of what really is (and the motivation to do it themselves).


My advice with struggling readers (my new friend, Donalyn Miller calls them "dormant readers") is always - look for the building blocks they are missing.  Just using repetition on too high a level with a child is frustrating for the child and everyone involved. 

Good teachers, whether they are parents or professionally-trained educators, recognize such "holes" and step back to more fundamental skills.  Here's an example.  If a child is having trouble blending sounds, make sure they have a strong, almost automatic recall of letter sounds.  If they have to work at blending and at recalling the sound, it may be a brain overload.  Think more concrete to less concrete, less abstract to more.  Use the concrete to help bridge them to the abstract.

With young children, the emotional support of a positive rather than negative experience, is so critical. Reading researcher, Dorothy Strickland, says, "It is the broader pattern of child-adult activities and interactions that support a child's language and literacy development."  If we do not give children mostly positive experinces with books, they will not choose to be readers.  

If a struggling child does what seems to them to be nonsensical exercises, how do we think that is going to give them the emotional fortitude they need to practice and become competent?  Think games, think tying whatever method you are using to teach to a positive experience, balance that instruction and practice that is necessary in the context of great read aloud experiences so your child sees the end they are working so hard to get to -- being able to read ANYTHING THEY WANT.  I have seen it time and time again that reading difficulties, when paired with appropriate balanced instruction, can be overcome.


This ended up being longer than I expected but I hope I answered the questions raised by my visitor on Kathy's blog AND perhaps some of yours.  Follow-up questions posted will be addressed (blogging is a great forum for that type of dialogue).  I also welcome, as always, your comments.

And today, share this blog with a parent or teacher, just one, that you believe can benefit and we'll spread the revolution!  Check out my book, Anytime Reading Readiness, for more ideas about supporting your young readers.


Jewels said...

What a great article. I love the comment about the cocoon of language. It is exactly what I believe makes good readers.

Regards Julie Ashton Townsend

Cathy Puett Miller said...

Jewels, so glad to hear from you. I"m going to check out your website very soon. I like the "reading from birth" concept as long as you aren't talking about forcing children to learn to read conventionally before they are at their prime time. We've gone way off the deep end there.

Unknown said...

Great article, Cathy. Thanks for answering the question in such depth.

Parent and Child Reading Assistance said...

You did a great job here. I haven't bought your book yet. This post makes me think I should. I'd like to share a post of mine with your readers showing how my three children learned to read differently.
I completely agree that teachers and parents must use what a child knows to teach what a child is learning. For example: If a child is learning to blend sounds, make sure the child knows the sounds he/she is blending.

Cathy Puett Miller said...


Thanks! I posted a comment on your blog. If those of use who understand these "secrets" share them with others, we will be adding to "the revolution" that is so necessary: families being involved in their children's literacy development AND families and teachers having authentic, two-way partnerships to help children succeed.

CoffeeShopBloggers said...

I heard that you need to read about 500 hours to your child as a baseline to helping them to read. I guess that is not hard if you read together every night since they are born.

Thank you for this article. I blog on phonics and how my kids learned to read at

I do find that it's just like learning to walk... the early walkers are not necessarily Olympic Track Stars!

But it is so exciting when your child learns to read; my youngest is just starting to now. He's excited but easily fatigued and I'm thrilled but sad that this is the last time I'll experience this precious, exciting time of discovering how to unlock the words!

Pragmatic Mom

Cathy Puett Miller said...

Pragmatic mom,

Thanks for posting a comment to Parents and Kids Reading Together. You are right to treasure the times with your own children (with those beginning readers, find great books that are just on their level so they can easily, successfully read and then books that are just delicious and require a little more effort. That will keep the "motivation button" on.

Also, it doesn't have to be your last because, with all your experience, I hope you'll find a child or children in your area who can use such a supporter.

I have a 20 year old and still get my fix regularly with little ones.

Kelly said...

This will surely be helpful for me... I have a 3 year old child (almost 4) and am planning to teach her the basics already but seems to be confused where to start, I just hope that I can guide her well enough especially with all the great information you just shared!

Thank you very much!