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While our brains are hard-wired for language, they were never designed for reading or writing. Those are behaviors that we have added to the tasks that we ask the human brain to do in our society. As a result, there are many reasons one child make not make as much progress in learning to read as another child may make.
Learning to read begins at birth or according to some experts, even while the child is still in the womb. The background knowledge that a child brings to the schoolhouse door does make a difference and has a direct correlation to how successful that child will be in school. Researchers say that the two strongest predictors of school success are a child’s proficiency in phonemic awareness and the size of the child’s vocabulary. We know that the gap between good readers and struggling readers develops as early as by the end of first grade. Without effective and timely intervention, this gap will continue to grow until there may be a gap of 4-5 years or more by the child’s high school years. Without help, struggling readers will most likely never catch up and they will either “tune out” or “act out” in classrooms all across the country.
All young readers must have a solid grasp of phonemic awareness to understand the “lilt” of the language and the sounds that various letters and letter combinations make. Secondly, they must be able to decode the words they encounter by understanding how to apply the English phonetic system to words. Beginning readers commonly learn to identify initial sounds first, final sounds second and then learn to distinguish how medial sounds change the meaning of the word. For example, the medial sounds in “book,” “back” and “beak” change the entire meaning of the word. Children must quickly recognize the meaning of the word and then be able to make sense of the context in which the word appears. Reading is about meaning out of the symbols on the page. If a child gets no meaning from the words, then reading has not taken place.
Much like math skills and understandings build, so too does reading skill. A child who has poor phonemic awareness skills will struggle with developing strong phonics skills. A child who has poor decoding skills, will find it difficult to become a fluent reader with good comprehension skills. The threads of reading must be solidly woven under each child if they are to become capable readers. Teachers must use good assessment techniques to find the “holes” in a reader’s tapestry and then work to fill those holes with appropriate and targeted instruction. Until the holes preventing the student from mastering the level where they are “stuck” are filled, little progress will be made moving to the next level of reading mastery.
Reading is a participation sport! Like the tennis player or the golfer, students only become better readers when they practice reading. We must take the time to model reading by reading orally to our students. We must find what interests our students and help them find text that is at the appropriate level of difficulty and motivating to read. Without meaning and joy in reading, students will continue to struggle and fight attempts to help them become better readers. We must help our students develop strong vocabularies and good background knowledge so they can relate to the material they read.
Reading must also be a social activity. As adult readers, we talk to our friends about books we have read or articles in our favorite magazines to reflect upon ideas or clarify meaning for ourselves. Our students must be given opportunities to talk about, think about and ask questions about the meaning of the text they read. Only when we act the ways I have outlined in this article will we succeed in helping our students become strong and informed readers who are ready for tomorrow.
By now, teachers across the country have heard about the “5 pillars” that are woven together to build and support strong readers. As discussed in my book, Threads of Reading: Literacy Strategies (ASCD, 2004) I believe that there are actually 6 “pillars” that form the weave under efficient and effective readers. As teachers, we must understand how to strengthen and weave all 6 of these threads to build strong and efficient readers.
As young children, we are surrounded by oral language that helps us build an awareness of the sounds of our mother tongue. Even while in the womb, we hear the “lilt” of our language and begin early in life to imitate the sounds we hear all around us. As we grow, we master the various phonemes that make up the syllables and words of our language and we learn to express ourselves orally. This is called “phonemic awareness” and it is an essential skill upon which our reading skills will begin to be woven. As students begin school, they will learn that there is a relationship between the sounds of our language (phonemes) and special symbols or letters (graphemes) that represent those sounds. While English is indeed a complex and often contradictory language, students can learn some basic rules (phonics) that can help them identify or decode unknown words that they encounter throughout their life. These three foundational skills, phonemic awareness, phonics and an ever expanding vocabulary are the foundational threads of an efficient and effective reader.
Once an individual is able to decode the words of the text, s/he is able to focus more attention on the meaning being conveyed.Just as with any other skill, reading requires abundant amount of practice. Reading is a “participation sport” that improves with practice. As we practice, our skill, fluency develops and we are able to read smoothly and accurately. Reading also requires that we make meaning out of the words and sentences on the page. While some children are able to verbalize all of the words on the page, they do not understand what they have read. For this reason, basic comprehension is a vital thread to becoming an efficient and effective reader.
While a reader can have basic comprehension, there is a 6th “pillar” or thread that must be present and that is higher order comprehension. Even as adult readers we never truly “master” the reading of all text. We have all been stumped by unfamiliar vocabulary and content while reading material where we have little background knowledge. For example, remember that legal document you had to sign or the stack of mortgage papers? Unless you have a strong background in either of these areas, you would lose your fluency while reading these documents and your comprehension would go way down to the “basic level.” A skilled lawyer or mortgage broker, on the other hand, would have strong fluency and would have the comprehension skills to assess the ideas and statements in these documents at the analysis, synthesis or interpretive levels. Even though a lawyer or mortgage broker might be proficient with this type of document, there would be other forms of text of a different technical type that would be unfamiliar to them.
When background knowledge and reading comprehension interconnect fluent and efficient reading can take place. It is the level of reading that we want our students to attain especially in light of the requirements of the new Common Core Standards that will soon be required for many states.. Most of a child’s school career is really focused on helping him or her build strong background knowledge and higher order comprehension skills in as many areas as possible. For this reason, understanding that through our life, reading is a ever improving journey. Throughout our lives, we continuously cycle through building vocabulary and background knowledge, improving fluency and enhancing our comprehension. This is the path to fluent and efficient reading..
It is during this period of our educational life that students are now expected to use reading as a tool for learning rather than spending most of their energy on mastering the skills of how to read. If students have been prepared well in the primary grades and have mastered their basic phonics skills they will not need to spend as much cognitive energy on decoding. the two greatest needs of students in grades 4-8 are building fluency skills, continuing to develop and build vocabulary and enhancing comprehension.
Reading is a participation sport. Just like a golfer has to practice hitting the golf ball on the golf course or the tennis player has to practice playing against a worthy opponent to improve their skills, students need to practice their reading to become more fluent and powerful readers. Practices like “Drop Everything and Read” time or DEAR or other sustained independent reading times are helpful to get children reading more. Students need to actively READ – not talk about it or do worksheets about reading – but actually practice their reading skills on authentic text in which they are interested and motivated to read. The more time children spend reading, the better readers they become.
Another good way to build student’s fluency skills is by re-reading a specific text to practice and refine it. Many of us figured this out as children in teacher’s classrooms where “round-robin” reading was commonly used. To avoid embarrassment, most competent readers counted ahead to see which passage they would be reading in front of their peers. They then practiced these passages several times to ensure that when they were called upon, they could be smooth and competent readers. While round-robin reading caused both competent and struggling readers emotional stress and we know today that it is an ineffective way to encourage good reading habits, the concept of re-reading and practicing a passage was the right way to improve reading. A great way to encourage children to practice re-reading and building fluent reading is by using fun techniques like plays and Reader’s Theater in the classroom. Children also can create podcasts of the material and actually put them on the internet for others to enjoy. Kids love it and fluency soars!
Once children can read with good phrasing, expression and intonation, the next step is helping children increase their reading speed. Research tells us that slow readers often lose interest in reading because it is a laborious task while readers who can read at a rapid pace, enjoy their reading and have more cognitive energy to devote to making meaning out of the words they are reading. Timed reading passages where children practice fluency can be good for increasing reading speed as can just simply increasing practice with material at an independent reading level. Practice with appropriate material also increases reading speed as children become more comfortable and well practiced readers. Again, as fluency increases and effort decreases, comprehension also increases and the brain has time to process the meaning of the text being read.
When reading is effortless and enjoyable, children can truly lose themselves in the plight of the characters or in learning about content in which they have an intense interest. Good readers often report “getting lost” in an engrossing novel or while reading about topics in which they have a deep interest. This is when reading takes on a special significance for our students. They are now reading to learn rather than learning to read.