March 2, 2011

Reading Readiness

This information comes from a talk I prepared for my local MOMS Club a few months ago. For over ten years now I have taught high school English. Every year I get students at age 15 or 16 who are reluctant readers, and I have parents who don't understand why. They want a quick fix.  "Help my student rock the SAT and get a scholarship to Harvard," they ask.  Unfortunately, a love of reading (and writing for that matter) and proficiency in reading requires intervention from the earliest stages of life. 

There are differing theories as to which methods of teaching reading are the best.  What I’m writing here comes from my findings and research as a teacher of students who were reluctant readers and also students who are reading way above grade level and headed to our nation’s ivy leave universities.

Let’s start by talking about you.  You are your child’s first and most influential teacher. You and the culture you create in your home are a strong indicator of your child’s future academic success.

Have some books around. A recent study surveyed 70,000 participants in many different countries at different socio-economic levels found that children growing up in homes with 500 or more books stayed in school an average three years longer than children from largely bookless homes.  Now obviously the number of books is not the reason for the increased interest in education, but the researchers suggest that these parents created a scholarly culture in their homes.  

Be a reader yourself. When children see the adults around them using reading and writing in their everyday lives, they're more likely to become readers and writers themselves. Simply having a bookshelf full of books, reading the local newspaper, and reading alongside your child as he does his homework shows your child that reading and writing serve valuable everyday purposes.

Read out loud to your child every day.  Often times I find that parents want some easy fix or special program, but the importance of reading aloud to children from infancy cannot be understated.  Numerous research studies tell us that struggling readers read less than successful readers.  It’s just that simple. 

The sit down quiet time of reading teaches time-on-task at an early age.  It helps kids learn to sit still, which, of course, is needed for school.

Also, being read to offers a number of opportunities for learning including vocabulary, grammar, syntax, knowledge of the world and so on.  An entire wealth of information can be available to your child by just cracking the covers of a book.

Try to make the reading aloud experience special.  Make it warm and inviting.  Give the characters voices. Read with emotion. Treat reading aloud as a performance for your all-important audience—your kiddos!

Treat books as treats.  Give them as special prizes or rewards.  Make them a hot commodity in your home.

When reading aloud, help kids make connections to their own world.  Didn’t that story remind you of when Daddy did such-and-such?  Or when we traveled to see Grandma? Or whatever!

Talk about a book when you finish it.  Help your child respond.  What was your favorite part?  What was the funniest part?  Who is your favorite character?

Read books that are fun to listen to . . . try poetry and rhyming books.  Rhyming is a pre-reading skill. Once they can spell “pot,” they’ll get “tot” and “cot” more easily.

Treat reading (and education) as a privilege.  Nate has had the opportunity to travel to other countries where kids don’t have books and their most eager desire is to go to school. We remind Micah often that going to school is a privilege that not everyone gets.

Don’t stop reading aloud when your children learn to read by themselves. When I taught in a physical classroom, as opposed to the virtual one I teach in now, I still read aloud to high school students and they loved it.  Choose a book to read together and discuss or write a journal back and forth.

Seriously limit media consumption. Even the best most riveting books cannot compare to TV, movies, and video games. Show your kids that while media is fun, it’s not what our family considers most important. Time is your currency. Your kids will value the things you allow them to devote their time to. You wouldn’t allow you child to eat whatever he wanted, so don’t allow them to consume whatever they want into their brains either.

Choose books carefully. Consult lists. Consider old books. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with some of the new series, if your child’s whole diet of literature is “candy” type books, he’ll get used to them and won’t be able to take on the rigors of more complex vocabulary and plot structure.

Introduce classic storylines early.  There are age appropriate children’s versions of mythology and King Arthur so kids will have scaffolding once they reach these difficult texts in high school or beyond. 

Frequent the library. Make it a place they love!

So what can you do when your kids are very young? Don’t stress out!  I’ve had two young moms talk with me recently who have two-year-olds.  They’re doing all of the above things, but think they aren’t doing enough.  They’re doing great. They should keep at it and not grow weary.  When children show interest, teach them letters and letter sounds.  Make it fun though.  Make it part of everyday play. I caution against early baby reading programs.  Those babies you see on TV aren’t really reading.  They’re recognizing pictures. The shapes of the letters form pictures in their minds, so they learn to recognize the word.  This is called sight reading.  I know some studies say these babies are ahead of their peers academically; however, the gap closes by age 6.  And if a parent is spending a large amount of time teaching a baby to read, what might that baby be missing out on?  Unstructured time, make believe play, and self-regulation are incredibly important cognitive building skills.  These things build executive function, which apparently is a greater indicator of success in school than IQ.  Old-fashioned play is indicative of future academic achievement, but that's a post for another time.

While I value and try to implement everything above, I also have to remember to put education in its place. As important as reading is, knowledge does not equal wisdom.