HowdoUTeach Reading?

First we need to talk about our ends in teaching students to read. Why do we want students to read? This can produce a quick and veritable laundry list of reasons:
1. To read the Word of God.
2. To learn, as reading is fundamental to learning from others mediately. It is a major form of human communication.
3. To train the mind in thought. Words are the means of thought, reading is sustained interaction with the written word, hence, reading is fundamental to thinking.
4. To lend speed and variety to the learning of the student.

Now we are ready to suggest a path of instruction that should meet the needs above. In doing so we must see that there are really two phases to this art: teaching the student to read the words (decoding) and teaching them to learn from the words (which is what I would call “reading”). Confusion over these two things can cause trouble. There are really three stages to learning to read: the Dependent stage, when a child needs someone to read to him (and this stage cannot be undervalued or the whole thing dies), the Decoding stage (which should be taught through a strong phonics program that attacks words at the level of phonemes and syllabic reading), and then the Independent stage, where the student is reading for himself.

The means to accomplish this must include the following ideas, usually bound up in some resource that adheres to these concerns:

A. Students are stronger readers when they are pushed early to learn the sounds of letters and phonemes (combinations of letters).

B. Whatever system of phonics you use, it should address the issue of “A” in a manner that locks these basic building blocks of reading thought into the child’s reading habits.

C. All children should be able to read basic books by the end of Kindergarten. We must keep in mind in a dumbed down culture that before Kindergarten was introduced (a 19th century progressivist notion from Prussian theory that pushed the child out of the home earlier than ever before in history) a child entered school able to decode, and was immediately able to learn from reading, rather than what we have now. I will never forget hearing one State Education Director (note that I withhold mention of which state) saying that the goal for the coming 10 years was to get all third grade students able to decode. I just stood there blinking. That is way too late in the game.

D. Every kid must learn to decode by attacking small, easy sentences at first, but it is the passion and drive of the teacher to get them to tasteful literature as soon as possible, or reading will become tasteless to the student. I am meaning by this to attack those who stick kids into books that use such things as, “The cat ate the hat,” or “Dick ran after Jane,” type of content. The banality is obvious to any child, and should be to all adults. Get them in real books with real content as soon as possible.

E. As a child is learning to decode and then read, they must have good reading modeled for them. Teachers should be expert readers, and lovers of reading, and always seeking to draw students up and in. Don’t read at or below the student, read above them. Read the great books to young minds and they will become great minds. Resistance to this point is rampant in our schools and is a major reason why we don’t have many lovers of reading in our students these days.

F. That leads to perhaps my fundamental concern with resource selection. Match your material to your philosophy, not vice versa. If you want early readers who love reading, your material that you use must pursue the same vision. The war between phonics and “whole language” advocates is over; the phonics folks won. But the modern progressivist still has his tenacles in the modern phonics programs. Be aware of these and either modify or cut as needed. Most phonics programs assume a much later reader than I am comfortable with.

G. We must realize that the speed with which our student’s minds come alive to reading dictates when they can begin learning other disciplines. This is a fundamental skill that precludes almost all other written learning. If we move too slowly, we put the student behind in other subjects as well.

H. My final challenge to those who are teaching young minds to read is to resist the modern push toward viewing learning to read as a mechanistic process. Reading is fundamental to thinking, and thinking is a gift to humans from their Creator, and this cannot be reduced to mechanical or numerically empirical steps or data. Reading is a major way in which the mind comes to life, and it is closer to a miracle than a machined product.

My purpose in writing these articles is to spawn discussion. I do believe I am on the edge rather than in the middle of current thinking. I want to hear refutation of my ideas so that I might grow, and so the schools I work with will grow as well. Chime in, share your thoughts, suggest resources. The conversation is worth your time.


4 thoughts on “HowdoUTeach Reading?”

  1. One of my teachers wrote a comment in email and then gave me permission to place it here:

    “Wasn’t it Susanna and John Wesley (circa 1700) who had 19 children, and their kids were not allowed to do household chores until they had learned to read? Most of their kids were reading well by age 4.

    I agree with everything in your article, though I’m not sure I get what you’re saying on point D. I may have misinterpreted what you were saying, so correct me if I’m wrong.

    I’ve heard a lot of “See Spot run” bashing in classical circles, and I understand that from a literature standpoint, it’s not great reading. Everyone knows that. “See Spot Run” is not there for the purpose of expanding one’s mind, and nobody in their right mind would use it for that purpose, especially beyond the age of 7. The problem with having students read “good literature” at such a young age (K-2) is that it will probably have words with sounds that have not yet been taught to the student, which actually then produces frustration and lack of cohesiveness in reading, rather than a desire to better their skills. We tried using some Veritas primers and they were a joke. The kids had no idea what they were reading because the words were not common and didn’t flow well, and yet the authors were trying to do the same thing as done in other primers, by using the patterns of particular phonemes in the story. The difference was that the verbiage used was unfamiliar and forced. It just didn’t work. The kids were bored because they had no idea what they were reading. Yet, they were written for the kindergarten level and came straight from a publisher of classical literature.

    Now, I am all for reading great literature TO our students at young ages, because I think that does feed the desire for them to learn to read well so that they too can read those kinds of books. But when it comes to having them learn to read, I’m not so sure it’s the best road to take to plunk Bambi down in front of them and say “Here, read this”, unless they are an excellent reader already, with the maturity to understand what they read.

    My two oldest kids were raised on straight phonics, where they read the “See Jane run” type of booklets. Both are avid and voracious readers who learned to read very well by age 6 (and then no longer needed those primers) and have always done supremely well in all areas of education (though I know there could be a number of different reasons for that). I don’t think that Dick and Jane stumped their desire or ability to read good literature. If anything, it only enhanced their reading ability SO THAT they can read good literature and read it well and with good comprehension. My third child, on the other hand, grew up with Open Court, which is what he learned at CCS. He is my weak reader. And that curriculum was chosen because it has supposedly “good literature”. I’m very glad we no longer teach that at CCS.

    So, I guess my point is that we should use whatever works to our advantage at the moment we need it, and not snob it because it doesn’t fit into our “classical mold”. My motto is “If it works, use it”.”

  2. Another teacher then wrote:

    “This topic holds real interest for all of us as teachers. I think you have presented the foundational understanding of the problem. I understand the importance of Kindergartners being able to decode so that they are able to “read”. What happens when it is a 6th grader, or an 11th grader (as I had when I was student teaching) that struggles to decode words? It is not only one student. I would say that out of 10 sixth graders, I have three that still struggle with decoding (so their comprehension is very low) and two more that are just past that stage, but not yet comfortable enough to comprehend easily. Unfortunately, that is the reality that many of us deal with on a daily basis. The difficulty also exists in my 7th and 8th grade classes. As I mentioned, when I student taught last year, I would estimate that about 1/3 of my class of 24 could not decode well enough to understand the textbook on US History.

    I think we all buy the concept that reading should start early, but what do we do when it doesn’t? I have spoken to many of the parents, and they are aware that their child has difficulty reading. What are some positive steps that I/we can take when we have students that struggle with reading?”

  3. I am very grateful for the start of this conversation, and know that we will do much more than just blog on it, but these are important questions. I will do some work at getting some of those “first steps” out in the near future. Thanks for the comments and keep them coming.

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