A Parent’s Guide for Teaching Reading at Home
After thousands of years of evolution human brains are hard-wired for speaking and listening. Children naturally pick up language from their parents. Written language has a much shorter history so our brains are not predisposed to read and write and must be taught.
As parents take over a more significant teaching load at home many are discovering that figuring out what kind of reading instruction they should be providing can be challenging.
An internet search reveals an array of information from the overly simple to the disarmingly complex. On the simple side, there is a plethora of easy and fun suggestions to choose from. There are lots of good ideas for keeping kids busy and entertained with worthwhile activities geared for teaching various parts of the reading process. Focusing in on the specific skills your individual child needs requires some knowledge of the different strands of effective reading instruction.
The National Reading Panel (NRP) report in 2000 defines reading as an equation; Decoding (recognizing words) times Linguistic Comprehension (understanding what is read) equals Reading Comprehension. Five instructional elements are identified as necessary for proficient reading: phonics, phonological awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.
Phonics: Because phonics instruction has been largely ignored in American classrooms for the last forty years most parents are not familiar with what phonics instruction is. Evidence collected by NRP confirms that making the crucial connection between the letters on the page and the sounds of the words is best taught by teaching the 44 sounds of the English language and the letters and letter combinations that represent them. While many school districts are adopting reading programs that include phonics instruction, parents who cannot recognize sound/symbol combinations will be at a disadvantage when trying to help their children learn to read and spell. This was my situation when, fresh out of college, I became a first-grade teacher with no practical experience for teaching phonics. I learned the sounds from flash cards and a book, The Writing Road to Reading by Romalda Spalding. Currently most elementary school curriculums provide up-to-date and engaging phonics lessons for children. For adults who wish to teach themselves the basics I still recommend the Phonogram Cards produced by Spalding International.
Phonological awareness: Phonological awareness is taught even before print is introduced by manipulating sounds to become words through rhyming (songs, nursery rhymes, poems), by changing a sound to make a new word (cat, sat, bat mat), blending sounds into words (stretching out the sounds as you write your child’s name) and segmenting a word into sounds (point to the letters as you sound out the word). It is never too early to start enjoying singing and clapping games with your little one.
Word recognition occurs through, decoding and encoding (reading and spelling). Our brains are not wired to do this and must be taught. Learning to read occurs in three separate parts of the brain. Inferior Frontal Gyrus is where sounds are processed. Virtually everyone is born with this language receptor and learns to speak and understand speech just by being immersed in the language. Parieto-Temporal Region is where the brain processes visual images. Using this function children easily recognize images such as objects and faces. There isn’t a naturally occurring connection between vision and speech so neural connections are made through practice. Once the sound symbol connections are strong they are stored in Occipito- Temporal Region of the brain.
Fluency: Occipito- Temporal Region is where automatic word recognition occurs. Once the neural channels that connect sounds and symbols are strong words become easy to access. At this point the words can be understood on sight and reading becomes automatic. Retrieval of stored words requires less brain-energy allowing for more thought to go to constructing meaning from what is read. Reading fluency increases as more words are recognized on sight.
Vocabulary: Vocabulary is knowing lots of words and what they mean. A robust vocabulary increases our breadth of knowledge as well as our ability to understand and use words to express thoughts and abstract ideas with precision. Everyday vocabulary is achieved through conversations with your children. The most effective and most enjoyable way to build a large and varied vocabulary is reading aloud to children. Include informational texts about subjects that interest your child, read stories that stretch your imaginations and take you to new places, and share the stories that were meaningful to you as a child. Your child’s listening comprehension is stronger than reading ability so there is no need to limit your read-aloud books to their grade level. Besides, you are there to explain and discuss anything they don’t understand.
Comprehension: Hollis Scarborough, senior scientist at Haskins Laboratories, is a leading researcher of early language development and its connection to later literacy. She compares teaching reading to “a woven rope by which word recognition and language comprehension combine as skilled reading is accomplished.”
Language Comprehension is built on background knowledge, vocabulary, knowledge of language structures, verbal reasoning and literacy knowledge. Background knowledge is learned from our environment and can be built in a rich environment of new and interesting experiences, conversations and books. Language structure includes grammar, word choice, rules for combining words and sentences. Verbal reasoning is the ability to extract meaning from text, think constructively, answer true false questions. Literacy knowledge involves understanding print concepts ranging from how to hold a book and read from left to right to recognizing genres.
Observing your child will provide clues for where to start. Start by noticing how they respond to learning activities and to books. Adjust to a level where they can be successful ninety percent of the time. Gradually increase the challenge as their confidence grows and celebrate new achievements. Enjoy the gift of this extra time you spend getting to know your child.
By Rorie Measure
CRA President Emeritus