Big topic for a small article. With big topics, such as world peace, global warming, or the problem of evil, authors usually find it expedient to narrow things down a bit. Not so with reading readiness. With few exceptions, the following big picture advice applies equally to teachers of four-year-olds, fourteen-year-olds, and forty-year-olds. Of course, there are differences that need to be considered for each age group. Preschool/kinder/first grade teachers, intermediate and middle school reading intervention (RtI) teachers, and adult education teachers know how to teach to their clients’ developmental learning characteristics. Similarly, English-language development teachers and special education teachers know their student populations and are adept at how to differentiate instruction accordingly. But, my point is that the what of reading readiness instruction is much the same across the age and experience spectrum.
So in keeping with this big picture advice, let’s begin with a definition of reading. More specifically, what is reading and what is not reading.
What is Reading
Reading is making and discovering meaning from text. It involves both process skills and content. It is both caught and taught.
What is Not Reading
Reading is not just pronouncing (decoding) words.
Reading is not just recognizing a bunch of words and their meanings (memorizing and applying sight words).
Reading is not just content.
Reading is not just applying the reader’s understanding of content by means of prior knowledge and life experience.
Reading is not just a set of skills or strategies.
How Reading is Caught
Plenty of studies demonstrate a positive correlation between skilled readers and their literate home environments. However, because it would be impossible to isolate, we will never be able to determine precisely which features of a literate environment positively impact reading and which do not. From my own experience as a reading specialist and parent of three boys, I offer these observations:
Reading to and with your child or student certainly makes a difference. Yes, reading pattern books, picture books, and controlled-vocabulary books are advisable. But having your child or student read to you (and others) is more important than you reading to them. Apologies to the read-aloud-crowd, but the goal is not to build dependent listening comprehension. The goal is to build independent readers with excellent silent reading comprehension. By the way, although it is nice for children, adolescents, and adults to have warm and fuzzy feelings about reading, it is certainly not necessary. All three of my boys hated reading and being read to at points, but my wife and I still required plenty of reading. All three are now avid and skilled adult readers.
Modeling reading as a reading readiness strategy is highly overrated. Having your child see you read and discuss text will be a by-product of a literate environment. Reading a newspaper in front of your child will not create an “ah-ha” connection in your child that will turn that child into a life-long reader. Similarly, having a teacher read silently for thirty minutes in front of a group of students doing Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) or Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) will not improve student reading. The students would be better served if the teacher spent that time refining lesson plans or grading student essays. Or more importantly, shouldn’t students be doing the bulk of independent reading at home? Charles Barkley was right to this extent: Role models are overrated for some things in life, and reading is one of them.
Turning off the television is not a good idea. There is no doubt that we gain vocabulary, an understanding of proper and varied syntax, and important content by watching the tube. Now, of course, a Rick Steeves travel show or the nightly news does a better job at oral language development than does Sponge Bob, but silence teaches nothing.
Talking with your child or students is a huge plus in reading development. A ten-minute conversation exposes children and students to far more vocabulary and content than does a video game. Of course, reading is the best vocabulary development, but we are talking about reading readiness here.
Word play, such as nursery rhymes, verbal problem-solving games (Twenty Questions, Mad Libs®, I See Something You Don’t See), board games, puzzles, jokes, storytelling, and the like teach phonological awareness, print concepts, and important content.
How Reading is Taught
Preschool (home or away), but preferably with other children and a trained teacher, has no easy substitute. A tiered approach to reading intervention, based upon effective diagnostic data is essential for struggling pre-teen or adolescent readers. The social nature, structure, and accountability of a reading class for adult learners has a much higher degree of success than does independent learning or tutoring.
Phonological (Phonemic) awareness must be taught, if not caught. In my experience, most struggling readers do not have these skills. Effective assessment and teaching strategies can address these deficits and even jump-start success. The mythical notion that reading is developmental or that a child has to be cognitively or social ready to read has no research base. The earlier exposure to sounds and mapping sounds to print, the better. Children simply cannot learn to read too early.
Don’t teach according to learning styles and beware of bizarre reading therapies. There just is no conclusive evidence that adjusting instruction to how students are perceived to learn best impacts learning. Focus the instruction of what readers need to learn, less so on the how. 80% of reading process and content is stored as meaning-based memories, not in the visual or auditory modalities.
Teach according to diagnostic and formative data. Build upon strengths, but especially target weaknesses. Even beginning reader four-year-olds can benefit from effective assessment.
Teach a balance of reading approaches. Certainly sound-spelling correspondences (phonics), explicit spelling strategies (encoding), sight syllables, rimes, outlaw words (irregular sight words) are time and experience-tested. Despite what some will say, learning sight words will not adversely affect a reader’s reliance upon applying the alphabetic code. Work on repeated readings, inflection, and fluidity to develop reading fluency. Teach comprehension strategies and help your child or students practice both literal and inferential monitoring of text, even before they are reading independently.
Take a close, hard look at expensive reading intervention programs such as READ 180 Next Generation and Language!® Live. These expensive programs promise the moon but what reading intervention students need most is solid assessment-based reading resources. Playing video games and creating cool avatars does not trump good old-fashioned assessment-based reading instruction. Check out Comparing READ 180 and Language! Live for a biased comparison of these programs to the author’s own Teaching Reading Strategies.
Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading
Teaching Reading Strategies
abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activities, phonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 game cards, posters, activities, and games.
Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Each book is illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The cartoons, characters, and plots are designed to be appreciated by both older remedial readers and younger beginning readers. The teenage characters are multi-ethnic and the stories reinforce positive values and character development. Your students (and parents) will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.
Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, English-language learners, and Special Education students. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance.