How children learn to read

(By Susan Biddle / For The Washington Post)
(By Susan Biddle / For The Washington Post)

How do children really learn to read? Answering that question is  Joanne Yatvin, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English who now supervises student teachers for Portland State University. She also writes books for teachers.

By Joanne Yatvin

A few months before my fifth birthday my parents enrolled me in kindergarten.  As the first day of school approached my emotions swung wildly between joy and fear.  I loved looking at the school supplies and new shoes my mother had bought me, but I didn’t feel ready to enter the world of unfamiliar children, teachers, and school expectations. My biggest worry was that I didn’t know how to read.  My mother had been reading stories to me regularly for as long as I could remember, but I still wasn’t able to decipher print on my own.

Fortunately, kindergarten turned out to be less overwhelming than expected.  The children were friendly and the teacher was kind. Most of the time we played, either in organized games or activities of our own choosing.  We also drew and colored pictures, scribbled random letters, sang songs, listened to the teacher reading stories, and rested on our floor mats.  Before we knew it, school was over for the day and we were sent home for lunch. No one had asked us to read.

During that kindergarten year I don’t remember feeling scared, bored or incompetent.  Those feelings came later in first grade when the teaching of reading and writing began, and the main activities were filling in workbook pages and participating in round robin reading groups.  To complicate matters, I came down with the chicken pox, measles and mumps during the first few months of school and fell behind the other kids in the class.  Through the rest of the year I made some progress, but I was still not a reader. Out of kindness—or weariness– my teacher promoted me to second grade.

Over the summer, going through my first grade basal reader for the third time with my mother’s help, I finally cracked the code.  I could read!  Not only that basal, but also children’s books around our house or from the local library.  I also read the newspaper comics, relieving my father of the chore he had done so graciously every night since I was a toddler. After a while, out of curiosity, I began browsing in other books from our living room bookcase and got engaged with articles in a 1910 set of “The Book of Knowledge.” At about age ten I also stumbled onto some adult fiction that looked interesting: a book of short stories by Guy de Maupassant, in which I read “The Necklace” years before it was assigned in school. From then on I never had to worry about not being promoted or getting poor grades.

Much later, as a wife and mother, I confidently sent my own four children, one by one, on to kindergarten.  Like my own mother I had read to them regularly.  Like me, none of them was reading when they entered school. Three of my children learned to read in first grade without any difficulty.  The fourth– despite my tutoring—wasn’t able to break the barriers of print until 3rd grade.  But once he did, there was no stopping him.  He became a voracious reader of anything that captured his interest, and is still that way today.

I recount this personal history not only because it resembles the experiences of many people I know, but also because it explains my position on literacy over past years as a teacher and principal, and now as an education researcher and writer.  Essentially, I believe that learning to read and write is easy—even a normal part of growing up—for healthy, well cared for children whose parents read to them and who have ready access to books and other print forms that interest them.

What troubles me are the extreme approaches to literacy in schools today or being advocated for the future.  For example, the Common Core Standards in reading and writing for kindergarteners and first graders are developmentally inappropriate and the proposals for universal pre-schooling are grounded in getting four year olds to read.  In addition, I disapprove of testing the early reading skills of children entering kindergarten; the state or local policies that call for holding older children back who have scored “below grade level” on reading tests, the reading remediation classes that drill endlessly on phonics and vocabulary, and commercial reading programs that aim to teach reading as decoding words, saying them faster, and answering questions to demonstrate comprehension.  I see all these practices as impediments to learning, diverting children from their natural interest in books and other pieces of writing but also damaging their belief in themselves as readers.

Please, do not get me wrong; I understand that there are many children who need more from school than just the opportunity to read.  Among them are children whose learning has been set back by poverty, neglect, abuse, and /or the absence of English in their early years. Others are influenced by peer cultures that do not value literacy, and a few have psychological or neurological problems. My only quarrel is with the types of “help” now offered or proposed for the future.  In my view the kind of assistance most likely to make a difference for these children is strong involvement with books and other forms of print from an early age.  I would love to see community programs that would deliver free books to homes on a regular basis, classes for parents on how to read to their children, school libraries open evenings and weekends all year round, TV and digital programs that offer a skilled adult reading to a child audience, and pre-school classes modeled on the practices of wise parents.  Until we can assure that all children are surrounded by literacy focused on their needs and interests every day of their young lives, their school problems will endure and handicap them in their adult lives.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | February 19