What Does it Mean to Teach a Child to Read?

We take reading for granted.

For most of us, it’s such a fundamental part of our lives, that we forget we are even doing it. Decoding signs and letters and books is more reflex than chore. We read without a thought.

That’s not true for everyone. For children (and many teens and adults), reading requires tremendous focus and effort. It is a complex skill that must be honed and refined before it becomes effortless.

Having already discussed the literacy crisis in the United States and the factors that prevent kids from being avid readers, it’s time to focus our attention on the nature of the challenge before us. What does it take to teach a child to read?

There’s more to literacy than meets the eye.

Reading isn’t just about translating text into words. The ultimate goal in teaching reading is to have students comprehend the ideas buried in the text. Reading requires critical thinking skills, concentration, a growing vocabulary and leads to effectively mastering the student’s environment.

There’s a lot more to it than just c-a-t, cat.

Reading fluency is a complex act that requires many years of experience and use. Many “models” of reading have been offered, each attempting to describe the essential components of skilled reading. Reading can be described at many levels, from the neurological to the psychological to the sociological. For our purposes, it is useful to think of skilled English readers as individuals who:

  • - Understand and use the “alphabetic principle,” that is, the translation of printed letters into sounds that form words;
  • - Can obtain meaning from printed words by using background knowledge of words and comprehension strategies;
  • - Fluently and effortlessly comprehend what they are reading, except when they come across unfamiliar text; and
  • - Do it all on a regular and sustained basis.

As easy as A-B-C, huh?

Learning to read English presents particular challenges that are not seen in other languages and reading systems. English is based upon that translation of letters to sounds to words. Research indicates that this process should begin in preschool and kindergarten so that children can learn that written words represent spoken sounds. We call this “decoding” and means breaking down a word into its separate sounds. To decode, children need to be explicitly taught how to sound out words. Comprehension is built as children become more adept at decoding and reading words.

Stringing words together is a great accomplishment, but it’s not the same as reading.

Fluency comes when a student recognizes more and more words on sight. The more words are recognized by sight the fewer the reading errors made. A student struggling with decoding will lack fluency and comprehension.

A lack of reading progress sometimes involves what child hears, rather than what he or she sees.

Reading problems often are not related to learning disabilities but to a child’s awareness of sounds. Not all kids have the ability to “hear” the English language, and limited exposure to the English alphabet can slow progress. Rhyming words and repeating lines help children develop an “ear” for language—by appreciating the sounds of words.

The more a child is exposed to reading, the more likely the child is to acquire the requisite skills for reading. Children must learn that words on a page have meaning and that reading is done from left to right and from top to bottom.

We take these simple truths as a matter of course, but they are foundational to literacy, and not every child is exposed enough to the written word at home.

Children who have not been read to when very young may not have experience listening to rhythms and sounds. They may have yet to develop an interest in reading. Contrast this to children who have been read to in childhood. They are more motivated to learn to read and appreciate that reading is a gateway to new ideas.

Ultimately, the enjoyment of reading comes from comprehension, however, and not merely decoding words. Skilled readers “interact” with a text, thinking about what will happen next, creating questions about the main characters and so on. Kids who love to read have good comprehension skills.

The most important form of early reading instruction possible is also the most obvious: read to kids.

When you read to a young child, you not only import some of the most fundamental skills necessary for higher literacy, but you teach them reading is valuable and even fun. A child can learn very early that those little squiggles on a page have meaning, and that meaning can illuminate and enrapture them.

We will explore the role of motivation on Thursday, but for now remember that while the technical process of learning to read is complex, the most basic instruction is not.

Reading to kids will help them learn to read.

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