Thursday, February 13, 2014

Here's what learning how to read looks like

Free voluntary reading. We learn to read by reading. Self-selected reading for pleasure (0:53) is a major factor in literacy development. No book reports. No chapter quizzes. No vocabulary lists. The best teachers find their students interests and then they help their students find books that match those interests. Did you see the look on that old man's face (0:18) when he looked up at his son's poster in the book store's window? That's the look teachers look for. Where there is interest, achievement follows. The best teachers look for that look on their students' faces and then artfully guide them to books that they might never have found on their own.

Phonics for a purpose. All wars are ultimately destructive and the war between phonics and whole language is no exception. A child who is good at phonics is good at decoding symbols and their sounds. In my daughter's grade 1 class, I remember when a little girl announced to the class that the T-H brothers are bad boys because they make you stick out your tongue like this, and then she showed us. It's true that you cannot read an alphabetic language without using and learning phonics, but reading is more than decoding. Phonics is a means to an end -- the end being reading. Did you notice that while the old man was learning the alphabet (0:20) that he simultaneously began to use the alphabet in a game of scrabble (0:30) with his peers, played a practical joke (1:01) and hit on his wife (1:12)? Stephen Krashen reminds us: "I am not saying, 'If it feels good, it’s good for you', but if we’re doing it right, it should feel good. If we’re doing literacy and language development right, teachers and students should be having a pretty good time. If there's pain, something's really wrong." Krashen reminds us that "There is a difference between extensive systematic phonics (teaching all rules to all children in a strict order) and basic phonics, teaching the rules that are straightforward and that actually help make texts more comprehensible." For more on this check out Stephen Krashen's website.

Belonging to a literacy club. When children aspire to be members of the literacy club, we can learn to read and write. The best way to inspire children to join the literacy club is for them to see the people they think the most of in their life reading and writing. The old man wants to join the literacy club because his son is a member -- their relationship inspires an interest. When teachers and parents allow reading and writing to needlessly sour our relationships with students, we convince children that they are not members of the literacy club. Children will reject us before we can reject them which leads them to say "I'm not a member of the literacy club, but that's okay, I wouldn't want to be a member anyways".

Just-in-time feedback. Students should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment but as information. Students need their teachers and parents to be less like referees and more like coaches. They don't need to be ranked and sorted -- they need feedback that will help them learn. What if we mostly taught grammar and spelling to children while they are editing and revising their own writing? Assessment is not a spreadsheet -- it's a conversation that needs to happen between the student and the teacher. The old man gets feedback (0:33, 0:35, 0:40, 0:46) he needs from his teachers and his peers so that he can learn to read. No testsandgrades required.

Reading to, for and with children. In his wonderful book The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Frank Smith writes: "Reading to children usually goes through three clear stages... First you are reading for the child, who is perhaps sitting in front of you, looking at your mouth as the words come out. Then the child is beside you, sitting in your lap or looking over your shoulder, looking at the book, not at you. You're no longer reading to or for the child but reading with the child. And finally comes that most frustrating moment in many parents' lives when they haven't got to the end of the page and the child turns it over. As British educator Margaret Meek would say, children at that point are no longer relying on a nearby adult for reading; they have trusted themselves to authors. And as Margaret Meek has also commented, it is a tragedy when many "reading teachers" stand between children and the authors who will teach them to read."

Poverty Matters. We shouldn't need research to tell us that poverty places children at a disadvantage in the classroom but if you were unsure, that is exactly what the research confirms. We know that children living in poverty have fewer books at home. They have fewer libraries and bookstores in their communities and their schools often have inferior libraries. The old man had to make a number of visits to the library (0:35, 0:42, 0:57 and 1:03)  and purchases at bookstores (0:05 and 1:08). Literacy requires affluence and opportunity and poor children get less of both.


  1. Friendly amendment: There is a difference between extensive systematic phonics (teaching all rules to all children in a strict order) and basic phonics, teaching the rules that are straightforward and that actually help make texts more comprehensible. For more details, see papers at:

    1. Thanks for this, Stephen. I will make a note of this in the post. I appreciate the comment!


  2. I really like the video attached to your blog. So apropos.

  3. I really like the video attached to your blog. So apropos.


Follow by Email