Parents of students who struggle with reading are often confronted with the frustration the kids face, and it can be painful for the whole family. The kids know that everyone reads because they see all the adults around them reading for everyday tasks such as recipes, road signs, or instructions. The teacher in the classroom is using reading to explain other subjects. The parents, meanwhile, feel helpless as their kids struggle, not knowing what to do to help.
It’s true that reading is not just necessary for books, magazines and video games. Reading is a skill for life as we navigate throughout our day, and can keep us out of danger when we know how to avoid it. Warning signs and instructions to use various tools, equipment and appliances can prevent injury.
Following instructions is a part of learning, which is why reading is such an effective and important part of school. Through reading, a wide variety of topics can be explained or displayed, exposing readers to new ideas and cultures. Proficient literacy skills are an indicator of academic and professional success.
It should be obvious that reading is a vital skill, but is it being taught effectively to children?
The Science of Reading
Long-term studies show that young students who lack literacy skills will continue to struggle as their reading becomes more complex at higher grades. As they fall further behind, they lag in other subjects as well, and become frustrated in class. Many have difficulty entering or completing college or holding jobs as adults.
It has also been established that kids who are read to at young ages come to school more prepared to learn to read than students who were not. The benefits of reading to kids have been borne out in a variety of subjects, from cognitive function to creative thinking and problem-solving skills. It is a proven fact that reading helps develop these and other executive functioning skills that don’t seem to have to do with reading, such as patience, emotional literacy, and getting along with their peers.
Reading is a process that involves several components. Readers must have phonemic awareness, which is the ability to distinguish language sounds, and phonics, which is the ability to match those sounds to letters or letter combinations. However, fluent readers must also understand what they are reading, and furthermore should be able to read and comprehend quickly.
Phonics vs the Whole Word Approach
Several schools of thought have evolved about how best to teach reading, but the two most prominent pit learning phonics against recognizing words by how they look. Both approaches have their uses, because not every word can be sounded out phonetically. The whole word approach was dominant for decades in education, and phonics left almost completely behind.
This has created problems with how reading is taught. Almost one fifth of students in the United States are reading behind their grade level, and some methods of teaching reading create bad reading habits that make it harder to do more complex reading later. Because of this, the teaching of reading has been very contentious among educators.
There Are Better Ways
Teaching reading is a matter of making sure students can understand both the words and the ideas they convey without having to read slowly or stumble over them. Learning how the words fit together into ideas comes when reading is facilitated by a variety of teaching methods, both in the classroom and at home.
This is where structured literacy is an important tool. Structured literacy builds foundations in phonics and phonemic awareness and then uses a variety of methods to ensure readers can learn in the way that is most conducive for them. As students learn to sound out words, they can learn fluency and comprehension by experiencing the texts they read.
- Choral reading is a method where readers and students read aloud together from a text they all have access to. This gives all the students a chance to both hear and say the words, no matter their reading level. Students who are struggling get support from hearing and seeing words at the same time, and it helps develop phonemic awareness.
- Reading with a partner can help reinforce comprehension when students talk to one another about the text. Stronger students can help those who are struggling in one-on-one settings. Classrooms of younger students can also partner with higher-grade students, exposing them to more sophisticated texts in a guided setting. A higher-grade student who is struggling can also get a boost from reading lower-grade texts with a younger partner.
- Ear reading is when students read a text along with an audiobook. Teachers have been reading to students this way for decades and now audiobooks allow the teacher to give attention to students who are struggling. This gives readers plenty of practice without the pressure of reading aloud, alone, to the class.
- Teaching Academic English exposes readers to specialized words, such as found in anatomy or zoology. Students learn words more easily when they can engage with them and have experience with their context, even when it comes to words that are topical. Teaching them the technical terminology allows them to decode the meaning from the words.
- Periodic assessments of reading comprehension are an important part of teaching reading. Students need to understand words, and they need to understand the meaning behind them. This can be accomplished in a limited way by associating words with pictures of their concepts, but more abstract ideas require some probing. Asking the student to answer questions about what they read also encourages them to think about these ideas, giving them practice with critical thinking and creativity.
- Students will be more interested in reading when they are allowed to choose the books they read. This can include graphic novels, comics, and books below their level. There is nothing wrong with reading below one’s level, even when a student is capable of reading more complicated text. Encouraging the finding of enjoyment from reading can be a great boost to helping teach students to read.
- Has your student read a certain book over and over? That’s okay, because this can also help students learn to read. Some classrooms read the text aloud together and then read again on their own or with partners, often reading the same text a few times in a week to foster reading skills from various approaches.
- As children grow, their brains develop both physically and cognitively. Learning any topic should be approached with this in mind because children develop in stages. Reading skills likewise develop in stages, and both educators and parents should be aware of the stage each student is in so they can teach reading most effectively.
Make It Fun
When learning is enjoyable, it takes the pressure off the educational aspect. Students can strengthen their reading skills by playing games related to the texts and by reading things that are fun and interesting to them. Students should be taught that reading can be fun, and can also enhance their fun with other activities by teaching them more about them through books, articles, and analyses.
Not every student will have the same interests, so it is important to be aware of what each student enjoys. For example, a student who has no interest in classics might become absorbed by notes on how to play a video game, while the student who does enjoy the classics will be bored by the same notes. Reading according to their interests ensures students are excited by what they read.
Teaching Reading for the Future
When it comes to teaching reading, there are so many theories that the whole topic can be confusing for parents. This doesn’t have to be the case, because there are definitely better ways to teach reading and support students at home while they learn to read at school. The skills required for reading also develop other skills that benefit students for life, so it is important to ensure they are able to master literacy.