Students listen to teacher during a reading exercise at Lynbrook Elementary School. (Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post )

No doubt you’ve heard this: ‘Third grade is the year when students go from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn.’ The truth is not so clear-cut, as explained here by 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 recent New York Times article described summer remedial reading programs for third graders who were in danger of being held back because they had not met the cut-off scores on school reading tests. As I read it I couldn’t help thinking that the states involved could have saved a lot of money and helped children more if they had arranged to have them spend their summer vacations in a public library. There, at least, librarians would have led them to books that appealed to their interests and included them in groups where a trained adult was reading stories aloud.

I might be more supportive of those remedial programs if they were strong enough to actually help struggling readers, but the examples in the article indicated otherwise. Why was a kindergarten teacher, rather than a reading specialist, assigned to teach a class of struggling 9-year-olds? Her lesson on how to pronounce the vowel combinations “ai,” “ie” and “ee” was pointless because those combinations—and others–are pronounced differently in different words, for example: “said and paid,” “fiend and friend,” “been and beef.”

If children had to stop and ponder the particular pronunciation of each vowel combination they encountered, they wouldn’t get very far into a story or be able to concentrate on what the story was about.

I also wondered why another teacher was asking children to explain the definitions of words that had been taught as parts of a vocabulary lesson. In reading any piece of fiction or non-fiction, it’s the context that helps children –and adults— grasp the meaning of new words and remember them.

For example, a child who reads the sentence, “To escape the onslaught from angry ranchers, the cowboy jumped on his Cayuse and galloped away” as part of a story forms a pretty good idea of what those words mean and is likely to remember them if they appear again on the next page.

Unfortunately, too many policy makers and inadequately trained teachers believe the saying used as the lead-in to the Times news article: “Third grade is the year when students go from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn.’ ” They view the early years of schooling like building a house: you can’t live in it until you’ve finished building it.

The truth is that even the simplest written message has meaning, whether it is a sentence in a book that says, “See Dick Run,” a “Happy Birthday” card, or a sign on a lavatory door that says, ”Girls.”

If meaning were not in those messages, why would anyone ever bother learning to read?