A Child's Journey

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Learning to Read and Love Reading

By Mimi Tang

From the Fall 2010 Caller
As the other 1st graders poured out the door for recess on their first day of school, she sat at her desk, freckled face resting on the open palms of her tiny, dimpled hands. In response to my query, a dark cloud passed over Amanda’s face as she whispered her confession, “I can’t read.” Hers was a fear shared by many other 1st grade children. . . .

How do young children learn to read?

It is a question asked of me, a 1st grade teacher, time and time again. The reading process can be extremely complex, but at its heart it is relatively simple to explain. Early reading development typically follows a somewhat predictable route for most children. At the same time, however, it is a unique, individualized puzzle to be assembled using a developmentally appropriate methodology sensitive to each child’s interests, strengths, needs, fears, gifts, experience, confidence level, and desire.

Reading instruction primarily comprises two components: decoding and comprehension.

Decoding consists of figuring out the words; comprehension consists of understanding what one has read. When children enter 1st grade, they are primarily focused on decoding. In fact, they are typically so focused on learning how to decode words that they often pay little or no attention to whether they actually understand what they have read. Comprehension, however, is the ultimate, long-term goal of reading. My challenge, as a teacher of early readers, is to honor the children’s desire (desperation, in most cases!) to learn how to decode while providing balanced instruction in all aspects of reading. Skills in decoding are the more technical aspects of reading, consisting of a number of strategies that all readers need to apply at one time or another in order to figure out the words. Children arrive in 1st grade with the beginning of many decoding strategies already in place (such as letter recognition, using the picture to make sense of the text, recognizing when a sentence sounds funny). My task is to help each reader recognize his or her strengths, and to teach this child the decoding strategies he or she does not yet know and the understanding of when to apply the appropriate strategy when reading independently. Depending on a child’s natural tendencies and his or her previous exposure to particular decoding strategies, I focus my instruction differently for each child. Every child brings strengths to the early reading experience upon which I can build my instruction.
For example, a meaning-driven student is one who primarily wants his reading to make sense. When decoding a sentence (figuring out the words), he might look more at the pictures than at the print in order to make what he reads make sense by matching it up to the picture. He might read the sentence “The dog went to the park” as “The dog goes to the park” based on the picture, ignoring the fact that the print does not match what he has read (“went” vs. “goes”). As with any child’s approach to early reading, I honor and praise the child’s strengths (in this case making meaning based on the pictures) and help the child focus on a strategy that will shine a light on the area that the child is not yet noticing, covering up the word “went” and asking, “What sound does ‘goes’ start with? What letter would you expect to see at the beginning of ‘goes’?” then unmasking the initial sound and letter in the word “went.”
As stated earlier, each child’s reading journey is unique. My own brother, Jason, is deaf. The path he traveled as a reader is unlike that of any child I have taught. On occasion, I ask him about his experience as an early reader since he lacked the ability to use the sound-symbol relationship of the written language to help him learn how to read: “Tell me again, Jason. Just how in the world did you learn how to read without phonics?” Today, Jason is an extremely strong adult reader with phenomenal comprehension, recall, and application of what he has read. He learned to decode without using one of the most powerful tools that most early readers use: phonics. Knowing this, and having grown up watching him ravenously devour books, I am hopeful that working together, any 1st grader and I can discover the decoding strategies that will work best for that child. (“Comic books!” by the way, is always Jason’s answer!)

If decoding is the how of reading, then comprehension is the why.

Understanding deeply what one has read is the ultimate goal of reading instruction. Decoding is a big focus in reading instruction in the primary grades and continues to be a focus throughout the upper elementary years. We readers, however, continue to actively grow and evolve our reading comprehension throughout our entire lives. From my perspective, comprehension is the brass ring.
Instruction in reading comprehension has technical aspects, just as decoding does. We teach our young readers story grammar (character, setting, problem and solution, plot), different levels of reading comprehension (literal and inferential), questioning skills, previewing, reading fluency, reading with expression and phrasing, making connections (textto- text, text-to-self, text-to- world)—all of which improve a child’s reading comprehension. But true reading comprehension encompasses so much more. The heart of bonedeep comprehension lies in a love of language and of reading that thrives and flourishes well beyond the classroom walls.
Falling in love with reading, however, is not something that happens in the blink of an eye. It is a long, slow process that evolves over many years. My own son, born just last spring, has already begun the process of falling in love with literate language. As he wiggles and giggles and happily plays while lying in bed, his eyes widen and a hush falls over his entire body as he is lulled by the beauty of literate language when I lie next to him to read a story to him or to make up an episode of our never-ending story featuring him as the main character. Only four months old, he can already distinguish between conversational language and literate language, as evidenced by his obvious physical responses. What I am teaching him through these affective experiences with story and books has little to do with decoding (figuring the words out) at this point, but I am laying the foundation for the development of a lifelong passion for comprehension.

Parents often come to me with the same anxiety about reading that their children have: my child can’t read.

The fear is real, and I know how terrifying it must be to think that one’s child is behind his age mates or not meeting benchmarks. My question is this: what can your child do? All young children who have been exposed to print of any sort have some knowledge about how books, stories, words, and pictures work. In this current era of accountability, front page news about test scores and the push to force children of younger and younger ages to do what their elders did at much older ages, it is no wonder that we worry about our children falling behind. Reading achievement can be forced to occur at younger ages than in the past. But just because we can, does that mean we should?
Consider how children’s oral language develops. Children are surrounded by people who speak, so they hear language modeled on a regular basis. When they make grammatical errors, we initially think it is adorable and allow those errors to continue until the child corrects the error himself based on the modeling he hears. If the child does not eventually correct the error, we may correct it gently depending on whether it is of concern or not (say, “Fine, thank you. I am well.”). There is a naturally accepted window of time within which we honor a child’s errors in oral language as a natural part of the learning process. We honor children’s explorations and attempts in oral language (“Oh, isn’t it cute when she says ‘aminal’?”) and help them build on their strengths. Then we use their strengths to address the challenges. Teaching children how to use the written language can follow a similar path. Both reading and writing have a natural window within which children should be given some leeway to explore, discover, and make mistakes without punishment. If we can consider early reading a journey of discovery rather than an assignment with a looming deadline, we will remove a considerable amount of pressure from our early readers that will then allow them to grow, explore, and flourish in the same way that they did when learning how to speak.
A love of reading can be learned at school and at home without the drill and kill exercises we had as children by surrounding our youngest readers with excellent, authentic, high-interest resources (oral and written stories, magazines, informational books, poetry), consistent modeling, and a regular commitment to engaging conversations about reading throughout our children’s years in school. The single most important act a parent can engage in to support a child’s reading development is to read aloud to that child often and consistently, no matter how old the child is. Children’s experiences as early readers in the primary grades are simply laying the foundation for a lifelong love of reading and understanding that is sure to reap tremendous rewards.
Recently, a child halted a class read aloud with a loud gasp. In response to my raised eyebrow, she exclaimed breathlessly, “Patricia Polacco’s description of her brother was so delicious! Can you go back and read it again so I can taste the words with my ears one more time?” This is the sort of passion that grows out of constantly swimming in environments inside and outside of school that are rich with lovely language and beautiful literature.
Mimi Tang teaches 1st grade at Catlin Gabel.