Why children want to be able to read is not open for debate. It’s for the same reasons that they want to walk: to control their own destiny. It’s purely pragmatic; children understand that, when they know how to read, they are better able to navigate their environment successfully, just as they intuitively understand that walking is better than crawling or toddling.
It’s the how and when, not the why, that are the issues. Again, learning to walk has some lessons for us. Some children are early walkers, maybe because of temperament, the presence of siblings or body development. Children who are heavier, for example, shouldn’t be pushed to become toddlers and walkers early, because that can put their physical development at risk.
Encouragement is a huge part of learning to walk. Think back to your own children, if you have them, and I am sure you can conjure up images of you and your spouse smiling, clapping and otherwise encouraging your toddler. You were there to lend a hand or prevent a serious fall, of course, but you also tried to keep ‘hands off’ when you could.
And you are a walker yourself, meaning that you modeled the behavior for your child.
Learning to read follows that pattern. Encouragement, modeling, timing are all part of the recipe.
But there’s one other essential ingredient—knowing something about how to teach reading—because, unlike walking, reading is not instinctive. At bottom, it’s an unnatural act, albeit a vital skill.
Two things brought this to mind. The first is the comprehensive report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Learning to Read/Reading to Learn.” That report, which came out earlier this year, is subtitled “Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of the Third Grade Matters.” It’s a wake up call that traces our status as ‘dropout nation’ back to the elementary grades. As the Casey report notes, “(M)illions of American children get to fourth grade without learning to read proficiently. And that puts them on the dropout track.”
The second reminder was more personal—packing up to move to new office space—because that process stirred up my own past. Because I’m something of a pack rat, I saved all sorts of stuff from my three children’s elementary school years. Along with their early ‘art work’ and report cards, in their folders I found some of the books that they were given as part of the wonderful program known as Reading Is Fundamental, or RIF. RIF went to inner city schools (including ours in Washington, DC) offering free books to kids. These were often the first books a child had ever owned. What’s more, RIF offered choices, not just the books that teachers and parents wanted children to read over the summer or on their own. Reading is Fundamental makes reading FUN as well as fundamental.
My kids were fortunate. Their parents were readers, their school had not bought into either reading ideology, ‘whole language’ or ‘phonics,’ and the principal encouraged what was called SSR, sustained silent reading, a daily period of 20 minutes or so when everyone—including the teacher—read something of his or her own choosing. I had sweetened the pot by telling my kids that they could travel with me (I worked for NPR) as soon as they could read.
I noted earlier that reading is not a natural act, more like swimming than walking. Most children will not learn to read (or swim) unless they are taught. But teaching must take advantage of children’s natural desire to learn. Teaching must be joyful and carefully thought out. Teachers must adapt to individual children, because, while most children can learn to read in first grade, not everyone is ready, and no one should be made to feel a failure.
While I understand the distinction between ‘learning to read’ and ‘reading to learn,’ it’s essential to remember that all kids care about is the latter. They’re pragmatists, remember.
The importance of joy and freedom of choice is reinforced by recent research done at the University of Tennessee. The 3-year study found that giving low-income children books and letting them choose which 12 titles to take had a powerful impact on what’s called the ‘summer learning gap.’ The research involved more than 1300 Florida children and included a control group of kids who got games instead of books. The kids who got the books outperformed the others by the equivalent of three years of summer school. (If the fact that a biography of Britney Spears was the most popular choice bothers you, I say, “Get a grip.”)
Tara Parker-Pope’s article also reminds us of a grim reality: schools are cutting back on the very programs that provide the building blocks for all future learning, summer programs and enrichment programs.
I believe our best teachers ought to be in the early grades. Who can make that happen? Is it happening in some places? If so, let’s spread that word.
Annie E. Casey report, “Learning to Read/Reading to Learn“