The coronavirus pandemic has cast parents unwillingly into the role of teacher. Except for parents who were homeschooling anyway, it can be an uncomfortable experience. Parents haven’t studied the curriculum or the techniques of teaching. When it comes to teaching your child to read, however, not knowing current reading theory is an advantage.
I am not a teacher, but I was married to an elementary school teacher for more than 20 years. I saw firsthand how state standards interfere with teaching reading or anything else.
What’s more, my own teachers drilled spelling, vocabulary, and grammar in ways our teacher training institutions no longer encourage. And I am learning that scientific research has verified that current methods of teaching children to read don’t work. Unfortunately, schools of education haven’t kept up.
A brief overview of teaching reading
In the nineteenth century, American schoolchildren learned to read from McGuffey’s Readers. They sounded out words in an approach called phonics. Phonics teaches students the relationship between how a spoken language sounds and the letters or groups of letters that form written words.
With the crazy spelling of English, phonics must also show how to navigate irregular spellings. But regardless of mismatches between spelling and pronunciation, students who learn to read by the phonics method learn words as particular sequences of letters.
Early in the twentieth century, the “Dick and Jane” books introduced a “whole word” method, which relied on frequently repeated words and pictures that supported their meaning. Recognizing patterns of letters still mattered.
In the 1960s, a new method of teaching children to read developed that relied on cueing. That is, students were taught to use graphic, syntactic, and semantic cues to guess or predict the meaning of words. The people who developed the theory denied that reading requires the exact perception of letters and words. They considered letters the least reliable of the cues and denied the necessity of recognizing words.
The trouble with the current theory of teaching reading
A decade later, scientists started to explore the psychology of reading. By that time, the cueing techniques formed the basis of teaching children to read. The psychologists initially assumed the correctness of the new theories. That is, it seemed reasonable that good readers understood contextual cues better than poor readers.
As it turned out, poor readers relied much more heavily on contextual cues than good readers. Skilled readers recognized words as sequences of letters. If they had to rely on context, they could correctly guess the meaning of only a fraction of the words. Cueing theory is wrong.
So have reading curriculums stopped using it? Alas, no. Of all the approaches to reading I have mentioned, phonics works the best. It’s also the most tedious to teach. And teachers who have grown up on cueing theory don’t want to do it. Education schools haven’t shown them how.
Later theories have tried to graft some phonics onto the framework of cueing, but the basis of such reading instruction still remains the methods struggling readers fall back on. And the scientific research that demonstrates which method turns out the best readers hasn’t yet penetrated teacher training programs.
Other ways schools kill the love of reading
If schools of education fail to teach effective methods of teaching children to read, the scheduling imposed by school boards and testing imposed by state governments stands in the way of enjoying reading.
The quality of a person’s education has many facets, but reading, and specifically reading for pleasure, might make the biggest difference. Unfortunately, our educational theorists have found all kinds of ways to kill a love of reading.
The outcome of so much reading in today’s schools is not enjoyment or even information. It’s filling out worksheets and answering multiple-choice questions about passages lifted out of context. Teachers have become so intent on all the measurements that they don’t have time to let students interact with real books. Standardized testing forces teaching to the test and following every activity with some kind of assessment.
Eventually, students have to read for information. After all, they have to write papers for their classes. How many schools provide time in the daily schedule for reading for pleasure? How many teachers allow students to choose for themselves what to read, and then read it without having to follow it up with busy work?
As it is, reading becomes a chore. Even good readers learn not to like it and read as little as they can get away with. We are approaching a post-literate society in which refusal to read, not the inability to read, blocks literacy.
My wife, on the other hand, made the love of literature the keystone of her entire approach to teaching. She had a collection of books in her classroom and gave students time to read on their own. She featured a different author every month and made sure students knew something about their lives and personalities. As much as possible, she tied teaching other subjects to literature.
A role model for parents: one teacher who teaches children to read and love it
But in reading for this post, I encountered teachers with years of experience who struggled with teaching children to read. And their students found reading tedious and boring. One of them, Pernille Ripp, describes her first years of teaching reading “exhausting.” One day she presented a lesson called “reading is magical” and overheard a student muttering, “reading sucks.”
Instead of scolding him, she asked him to explain why he thought so. The whole class chimed in. She realized they were sharing similar experiences to her own with the lessons. Now, even though she only has 45-minute blocks for reading, she starts every class with ten minutes of unstructured, independent reading. She makes no attempt to grade or assess it. The rest of the class time offers opportunity for that. The students love having choices.
Ripp has assembled a library of several thousand carefully chosen books. Her 7th-grade students exhibit a wide range of reading levels from second grade to college. She has enough books that all her students can find a variety at their level. She even has picture books. After all, they’re fun. And the daily sight of that collection makes a lasting impact on her students even when they’re not reading them.
Children who love to read naturally become better readers. Better readers have stronger reading comprehension skills and get better grades. When they find something hard to read but necessary, they work through it instead of giving up. They reap more than academic benefits. Reading shapes how they understand the world and who they are in it. Pleasure is its own reward. Teaching children to read ought not to be an exercise in futility.
How parents can foster a love of reading
Even the best school curriculums and practices work better if parents reinforce lessons at home. So you had an important role in teaching your child to read even before the pandemic. And it will continue.
You can foster the love of reading by reading aloud to your children when they’re very young. And actually, good readers never outgrow listening to someone else read to them. Reading aloud just becomes a two-way activity as they get older. You can also take an active part in helping children find books they’ll enjoy. And if children see you reading for pleasure and hear you talking about books, they will see the importance of reading.
Researchers at the Australian National University surveyed 160,000 adults aged 25-65 from 31 countries. The surveys measured literacy, numeracy (ability to deal with numbers), and information communication technology.
Among other questions, the survey asked how many books were in their homes when they were 16. It turned up a fairly direct correlation between the size of the home library and proficiency in the measured areas, especially literacy.
That is, people who grew up in a home with few books struggled with reading. Those who grew up with about 80 books had average literacy. The more books in the home, the higher the literacy skills. People who grew up with home libraries of more than 350 books also started to display improvements in numeracy.
In fact, respondents with no college who grew up with lots of books displayed similar literacy to college-educated people who did not.
Even if you’re a parent who struggles with reading yourself, you can have books in the house. You can encourage your children to enjoy them. Oh, and when they read to you, nudge them to pay attention to the letters in troublesome words.
At a loss for words: how a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers / Emily Hanford, APM Reports/ August 22, 2019
Growing up surrounded by books could have powerful, lasting effect on the mind / Bridgit Katz, Smithsonian. October 12, 2018
How to stop killing the love of reading / Jennifer Gonzalez, Cult of Pedagogy. December 3, 2017
A love of reading makes all the difference / Kathryn Culbert, Institute of Reading Development.