a practical guide to inspiring academic excellence
Reading - Beginning and Early Elementary School
Jump ahead to Independent Reading (Grades 1-3)
School begins when children are very small -- by reading to them. All the time. Hamish and I can still quote any number of children's stories by heart; Helen and Anna remember none of them. But the important thing is that children learn that stories equate to entertainment (and cuddles and affection), and they watch you read for both pleasure and education.
Once, when Hamish was leaving for a month of work abroad, he recorded himself reading a dozen of the girls' favorite stories. This was a great way to occupy them, and gave them reading entertainment -- but it has to come after hours and hours of sitting side by side with a parent -- it's a supplement to reading together, not a substitute. Nowadays, I have to admit, we are lazy enough to let Stephen Fry do most of our reading aloud for us, as the Harry Potter stories repeat endlessly on long ocean passages.
The other reason to read children's picture books aloud is they often have far more complicated vocabulary than the typical adult conversation, television, or general elementary school books. In fact, the vocabulary in books read to pre-schoolers is often on par with that of the assigned literature in high school. Of course, you'd have to read a lot more picture books to get a similar number of actual vocabulary words, but there are two important take aways from this -- one, parents must read aloud to their children (and continue this throughout early reading instruction), and, two, children do need a different class of book for their early reading -- the early reading books and chapter books are at a significantly lower vocabulary level than the read-aloud picture books, and that's a good thing. Children can polish their reading skills on phrases like, "Mat sat. Sam sat" and at the same time learn vocabulary words like "soporific" from listening to Beatrix Potter.
For some children, reading aloud may be enough, or nearly enough. If your children do learn to read by your side without any apparent effort or phonics training, let them read! The only goal of reading instruction is proficient and enjoyable reading -- not exposing them to drudgery. If your students read quite well, but you still have a nagging desire to work on their phonics, you can mesh that into spelling later on.
For many children, however, story time and book exposure is not enough. There are traditionally three main methods of teaching reading used in schools, although most teachers use a mix to teach their classes. The phonics system teaches children the sounds of letters and groups of letters, and allows them to "sound out" the words. The sight-reading system teaches them to recognize words that are used with high frequency in children's books and read rapidly from a collection of memorized words. The whole language system, which was in vogue when I taught Helen to read, emphasizes meaning-based experience, rather than sound-based, so there is no explicit instruction in how to sound out words. In some places, the debate still rages, but now many US educators are talking more about balanced literacy, which is melding explicit phonics instruction with whole language instruction.
Most schools teach reading before or alongside writing, on the assumption that most children are physically capable of reading before they are capable of writing. Montessori schools teach writing first, and the children learn to read by reading their own writing. I didn't try this approach, but it's an interesting one. It does require a lot of organized work in the early years to develop the necessary dexterity.
British schools are returning to phonics after many years of sight-reading, and American schools are slowly moving back to a combination of phonics and whole language teaching. American teachers may dislike phonics because they were taught phonics the way I was: my memory of first grade includes several weeks on the schwa, a symbol found in dictionaries that looks like an upside-down e:ə . I remember making posters of the schwa, making up songs about it, coloring it green (staying between the lines!). I did not learn to read that year.
A 2002 article in Scientific American discussing the systems of teaching reading, research into the efficiency of those systems in the classroom, and the brain processes behind learning to read recommends taking a phonics-based approach, concludes emphatically:
[R]eading must be grounded in a firm understanding of the connections between letters and sounds. Instructors should recognize the ample evidence that youngsters who are directly taught phonics become better at reading, spelling and comprehension than those who must pick up all the confusing rules of English on their own. Educators who deny this reality are neglecting decades of research. They are also neglecting the needs of their students.
Furthermore, the authors recommend that most teachers (even in schools) follow a structured program as the most efficient way to teach children phonics. I am not going to enter that debate, but I do know that a phonics-based system (and lots and lots of reading aloud beforehand) worked for us.
Good readers sight read. Fast readers sight read. The sight reading faction extrapolated that it is worth teaching children that way from the beginning because obviously that is the right way to read. It is. But, what happens when you get to a word you don't recognize? You have to slow down and sound it out. The basic skill of reading is breaking down words and sounding them out.
Mechanics don't chant "righty tight-y lefty loose-y" to themselves as they rebuild an engine, they just do and undo the bolts. But somewhere first, they had to learn the basic principles. Asking children to learn to read by simply exposing them to books is like plunking someone down in front of an eighty horsepower motor with a stack of seals and a jumble of tools saying, "rebuild this engine." It can work. Plenty of kids in my hometown learned mechanics in just this way -- they'd buy a beater at fifteen and have it going by the time they were old enough for a driver's license. But it's not the most efficient way, and a lot of children are so put off by the intimidation of the whole engine that they just don't know where to start.
Many professional teachers become positively angry when discussing direct phonics instruction -- Regie Routman describes it as "repetitive, military-like, whole class drills with scripted teacher materials . . . [that] focuses on sounds and words in isolation." She argues that the call for phonics "is contrary to the wide body of research that puts meaningful encounters with print in social contexts as the most critical to emerging readers."
A friend of mine worked extensively in reading education and trained as a Reading Recovery teacher. Many of her students had never handled a book before school -- they didn't know how to hold it. That is what public school teachers are up against; it's easy to see the benefits of a whole-language approach, where all the children can come into contact with books and stories, to appreciate them before going through the hard work of learning to read. However, in a homeschooling situation, this immersion in books does not have to take place in "school time," but rather should be an intrinsic part of family life.
Another reason that the research about phonics instruction failed to inspire teachers was that in 2000, the National Reading Panel issued a report entitled, Teaching Children to Read, which emphasized the importance of phonics in teaching reading, and went on to note that (this wording is from 2003 summary pamplet, Put Reading First):
One of the major differences between good and poor readers is the amount of time they spend reading. Many studies have found a strong relationship between reading ability and how much a student reads. … Research, however, has not yet confirmed whether independent silent reading with minimal guidance or feedback improves reading achievement and fluency. Neither has it proven that more silent reading in the classroom cannot work; its effectiveness without guidance or feedback is as yet unproven. The research suggests that there are more beneficial ways to spend reading instructional time than to have students read independently in the classroom without reading instruction.
I suspect many elementary school teachers had the same reaction I did, which is to shout, "Ridiculous!" Teachers are instructed to "encourage" students to read more at home, which is patently meaningless -- six-year-olds whose parents push them are already reading at home, and the ones who don't have pushy parents won't read at home, even with teacher "encouragement."
In several points in the document, Put Reading First discourages actual reading. Going through the pamphlet again (after a year-long cooling off period) I wonder if what perhaps they meant to say (or should have said) was children shouldn't be required to do silent independent reading until they can actually read at a first grade level (this was a common practice in many American "whole language" classrooms in the 90s and 00s). After all, when I'd read the whole language method descriptions, I couldn't understand how the children were supposed to learn to read, and I knew if I'd been a first grader in a whole language classroom, given a book to read without knowing how, I would have talked, doodled, cried, or tipped over in my chair. I would not have tried to puzzle it out. However, once I could read, I never would have become a successful reader without thousands of hours of independent reading.
When I started the search for how to teach my children to read my only real starting point was that I hated every minute of my reading instruction, and it took me three years to read my first chapter book. No one (I hope) teaches first graders about the schwa anymore. Although whole language teachers talk about how they teach phonics "in conference," I didn't have the confidence in my own phonics knowledge to think I could teach reading through multiple readings of Thomas the Tank Engine. After all, I'd read most of the books in our library aloud -- to the point of my knowing them by heart -- yet neither daughter had shown any signs of learning to read.
I also wanted something fast. I remembered the screaming boredom of learning to read, and wondering why I should bother (probably because my parents read to me whenever I wanted). It seemed important to minimize the time of learning to read, so the children could get on with the important business of reading. In an article entitled "The Reading Wars," published in the Atlantic, Nicholas Lemann comments, "Even … parents who consider themselves to be greatly concerned about their children's education, have tended to focus on high school and to assume that not much can go wrong in the world of angelic six-year-olds." From the beginning, however, I had the opposite belief: that teaching reading was the most important job I had in all my teaching.
While researching, I came upon Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. It is a "scripted program," which means your part in the play is clearly written out. The exact words you're expected to say are right there on the page. There is no need for preparation, no need to study up on the assignments the night before. I didn't in fact say exactly the words on the page, but I did go through the sequence of sounds in order and taught the stories as instructed. We did not do the writing practice, because that made the lessons too long.
There are several key factors in Teach Your Child to Read:
• stories begin almost immediately, so the children have the satisfaction of reading
• each lesson begins with some new material and practice, followed by a story
• the stories are all a bit odd, so it is impossible to guess the words; the children have to actually read it
• parents are instructed to cover up the picture at the first reading so there is no chance of guessing[*]
• the first half of the book uses phonetic writing, for example the long e sound is written ē and the "th" sound is written with the two letters joined together. English pronunciation is extremely complicated, and so this is a great way to start students reading while they internalize the rules. (Students are gradually weaned off the crutch of phonetic writing in the second half off the book.)
* (Guessing is one of the biggest points of contention between the two theories of teaching reading. Whole language teaching actively encourages guessing; Teach Your Child to Read actively discourages it. My unstudied opinion is that it is better to sound it out rather than guess because that way the student is not limited to the spoken vocabulary he already knows, but instead can learn to figure out new words. For example, when Anna encountered the word "tavern" in The Lord of the Rings, she was able to sound it out and figure out what it meant, despite never having heard it before. Her oral pronunciation wasn't perfect -- she'd say "tarvern" instead of "tavern" – but that's better than guessing, which would have left her bewildered by the sentence and without the new vocabulary word.)
Teach Your Child to Read is also a good resource for dyslexic children, who often need explicit phonics instruction. Anna isn't dyslexic, but she does have some learning disabilities, although I didn't figure this out until after she'd learned to read, and she had progressed to churning through the Lord of the Rings. It took her considerably longer to learn to read than it took Helen, but by the sixth grade she was reading at a high school level. It took a lot of patience and a couple of years to get her on track.
A lot of bitterness in the learn-to-read wars stems from using different terms to describe similar things. Sitting on the couch with Helen and Anna working through Teach Your Child to Read was a million miles away from Routman's description of "military-like whole class drills." For the first several weeks, Helen baulked at the size of the book, so I copied the reading onto index cards and put the book away. (By the time Anna started to read, she'd watched Helen work through the book, so it wasn't intimidating.) I think the key to avoiding the pitfalls often ascribed to direct phonics instruction is to teach it one on one, surrounded by books for the rest of the day. We had a bookcase at ground level; the children always had access to books, and every night had a bedtime story or three.
Halfway through kindergarten, Helen was reading at a second grade level; it took Anna until the end of first grade. I have to admit, however, not everyone was impressed. For a while I became a bit of a proselytizer for Teach Your Child to Read, telling everyone I knew with a pre-reading child how well it had worked, how quickly, how inexpensively, and I even gave away a few copies. No one I know gave it a try, neither those with children going into traditional schools, nor those homeschooling. I'm not entirely sure why -- perhaps it was seen as too conservative, too strict, too much time, interfering with the school teacher's work.
If Anna had been the elder, I might not have been so enthusiastic about Teach Your Child to Read. I might have blamed the book for her difficulties in learning to read, and then not tried it with Helen as a result. However, my research and my experience backs up the idea that systematic phonics combined with a family immersion in books is a great way for children, dyslexic and otherwise, to learn to read. If you don't like Teach Your Child to Read, you might find the All About Reading program more compelling (and potentially better for dyslexic children, although it is usually hard to tell if your children are dyslexic before you start reading instruction).
Independent Reading in Early Elementary (Grades 1-3)
Once a child knows how to read, she needs a lot of books. This is easy if you live near a library, but if you're out in the middle of nowhere, or in a country where you don't speak the language, you'll need to stock up. We bought a set of 500 children's books on Ebay for fifty dollars; second-hand book shops can be a good source, and friends and relatives with older children may be ready to clear out a bookshelf. At this age, digital books aren't really a good option, and most children like books with lots of pictures, so you're better off with, well, if I have to pick a number, at least 100 children's books in the grade 1 to grade 3 range.
This is the trickiest time to try do "on the road schooling." It's okay if you are on a boat or an R.V. with storage space for books, but if you're trying to go touring around by bus or plane, you might find it easier to wait until your children are out of the picture book stage and will be happy with a Kindle or e-book reader. This difficulty is lessening, however, as more and more good children's books are available as ePub or Kindle, and look great on a ten-inch tablet. I would still prefer to read paper books with young children when possible, given the concerns about backlit screens and melanin production (researchers tell us that reading backlit screens at night or watching t.v. before bedtime can interfere with sleep, whereas a non-backlit e-reader appears to act more like a regular book.)
When I was in school, we used to have to write book reports on all the books we read. I loathed it. The important thing at this age is to read, read, read. It doesn't matter too much what it is (although I'm not that fond of Captain Underpants, and Junie B. Jones's grammar isn't exactly what you want your children to be learning.)
If your students are not reading for an hour or so everyday at their reading level, then you should assign it as part of school, supervise it, and if you have to, ask them to keep book logs or other proof of what they've read. If they spend an hour a day or more reading on their own, stay out of it. That's an easy way to trim back on your "school day." Just make sure they read.
Elementary school children must be required to read, and read in great quantity, but children who choose their own books, and read for pleasure, entertainment and information, will become better readers. In Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For, Thomas Newkirk points out: "unless we can persuade students that reading is a form of deep sustained pleasure, they will not choose to read; and because they will not choose to read they will not develop the skills to make them good readers." [emphasis in the original]
If your children are avid readers, they don't need to keep book logs, write book reports, or do any of the other "prove it" busy work of reading classrooms. A reading teacher needs some accountability with what happens when the students are outside of the classroom, but a homeschooling teacher knows how much reading is going on without the documentation.
(When we had to provide homeschooling documentation for New Hampshire, our evaluating teacher had the excellent idea that I cut colored paper into strips, which the girls would use as bookmarks. When they finished a book, they would copy the title onto the strip, and staple it into a paper chain.)
Once your students are hooked on reading, encourage them to vary the material a bit, but again, all that really matters is they are reading. Don't worry if they read the same book a dozen times. A friend's son was told by his third grade teacher that he "wasn't ready" to read Harry Potter books, so he was forbidden to read them at school reading time. Fortunately, he wasn't discouraged and read them at home -- about ten times. Perhaps the teacher was right, he wasn't reading well enough to get everything out of the books on the first read, but it didn't matter. He was fascinated by the books, and so he read them again and again, and that improved his reading level far more than sitting in a classroom, eyes passing over words that he was "ready" to read, but held no interest.
Nancie Atwell in her excellent book, The Reading Zone, asks her students to categorize books as "just right," "challenge," or a "holiday." (She's adopted the terms from teacher Leslie Funkhouser.) Ideally, your students' independent choice reading should fall into roughly a third of each type of book. Atwell's students kept reading logs, but simply keeping in touch with homeschool students over the dinner table can let you have an idea of how hard they are pushing themselves. If all their books are holidays, you can be a bit more proactive about your suggestions, if all are challenging, point them to some easier books to help them develop fluency.
Elementary school teachers frequently talk about Jeanette Veatch's "rule of thumb" where students open a book to a random page, and read it. If they count up to five words on the page that they don't know, then it's too hard. (This is probably the test that ruled out Harry Potter for my friend's son.) Can you imagine sitting down to a read a book where you didn't know five words on every page? It would be discouraging, heartbreaking and you'd probably give up on the book. Five words a page? And there are more words per page on an adult book than a child's book, so the percentage of unknown words is far, far higher for children.
I take two lessons from imagining myself coping with five unknown words a page. First, interest in the subject matter is critical -- it makes the student read, and read again. And maybe read again. Second, I think it points to the importance of having the skills of sounding out words on the page, even if that skill is employed for a relatively short period of time while sight reading develops.
Almost immediately after finishing their reading program, both Helen and Anna were able to sound out almost any word they came to. Of course, the more they read, the fewer times they had to stop and sound out words, because their sight reading memory was increasing every day. Sounding out the new words rather than guessing meant that their sight-reading memories were accurate not haphazard. Books aimed at roughly second grade level didn't pose a challenge for them in terms of spoken vocabulary, so it was simply the new experience of seeing words written down that challenged them. When they did meet a word they didn't understand, they could make a good pitch at it, and come up with something very close to its actual sound. (Well, apart from "chaos;" I too remember having trouble with that one.)
Anna had a lot more difficulty turning words into sight-reading words, and she was much more prone to just saying any old word that started with the same letter as the word on the page. It took her many more repetitions of sounding out a word before she knew it. But she could read: she could confront each word on the page and sound it out and read independently. She didn't have to employ strategies of guessing, looking at the picture, or any of the other methods that are frequently taught to early elementary school children. I am convinced that she would not have learned to read comfortably had she gone by the "Rule of Thumb" and tried to guess the unknown words. She cannot copy a list of words accurately when they are right in front of her unless she does it one letter at a time; she can't hold the image of the letters in her mind long enough. But because she had the ability to sound out the words, she could read, and she read enough, over and over, that she did learn to sight read, and now she can read at an adult speed.