Friday, February 11, 2011

Teaching reading (or Don't let Anne drive the bus!)

I recently volunteered to be a primary (elementary) school "Reading Buddy." I get to go into a school once a week and have my Reading Buddy read to me. And chat about books, words, and life in general. And sometimes I get to read to my buddy, too. I can't wait to get all the paper work and security checks finalized.

In the meantime, I attended a training session at the school I'm going to be working with so I could learn their system and expectations. As a former teacher, I found the reading plan well-structured and accountable. As a writer and lover of books, especially children's books, my heart ached.

Basically, books are scored on levels 1-12. The more words, the more complex the words, the more dialogue used, and the more complicated the story, the higher the rating. Kids' reading levels are assessed, and they're only supposed to read books at the level they're at. Once a child reaches above 90% fluency on a level, they can be moved up one level. At the training session, we worked on introducing books to kids, assessing what areas of a book might be difficult, and how best to prepare kids for reading a new book.

What was my problem with all of this? Well, the books were written specifically for this system. We read one non-fiction picture book about how to build a house. Another about a wedding. Some of them were okay, some weren't, but none of them made me eager to turn the pages. Where was Mo Willems? Or Maurice Sendak? Or Julia Donaldson?

I get how the system is about encouraging children's reading confidence, gradually building up their ability. But I worry that it takes all the fun out of reading. After all, what's the point to reading if you're not going to read about dinosaurs? Or monsters? Or a pigeon stealing a bus?

But maybe I'm a reading snob. I don't remember learning how to read. I don't remember ever struggling with it. I didn't have to learn English as an additional language. And I've never had the honor of helping a child learn to read. So maybe there needs to be a system in place to assure everyone learns, especially kids who struggle or don't have supportive families. But I'm hoping my buddy won't tell if I bend the rules every now and then and bring in contraband books.

Is it bad that I haven't even started and I'm already planning on subverting the system?

Do you remember learning to read? How have you (or would you) teach reading?*

*Several months ago, one of my blogging friends wrote an AMAZING post on how to read with children. I remember being inspired by it. But I can't find it in my Google Reader. If you know what I'm talking about, please share the link so I can post it! Thanks.


  1. Like you I don't remember learning to read. I was reading far above my age and grade level, very early. In fact, I learned to read so early that I don't remember being read to!

    When you wrote about smuggling in contraband books, it made me smile. I hope your reading buddy enjoys reading with you - whatever the books at hand. Kudos to you for volunteering.

    I'm a big believer that volunteering makes the world - and individual lives - better.


  2. I was a language arts teacher for seven years, but I taught middle school. Right now I'm working with my 3-yr-old daughter. She does best with the Dick and Jane books because there is so much repetition. She can read them on her own and she feels so proud of herself. I also work on word groups. She already knows "it", "an", and "at" words. It's a great way to help her learn because once she gets the word "at" she can easily read sat, bat, cat, etc. I think books with repetition are key. The more they see the word, the more confident they become with their reading. I agree with you about the content of the books. It has to keep their interest, especially if the child is struggling to read. Who wants to struggle when the story isn't even good?

  3. Thanks, Elisabeth. I hope it works out well. Honestly, whatever the books, I think it could be such a great experience.

    Kelly: Thanks so much for sharing your experience. This is the part of the puzzle I feel I'm missing out on, all the little details (ie learning "at words") that I don't remember. Hopefully my buddy and I will be able to find books within her/his reading level that are interesting, too.

  4. Anne, I didn't learn English until I was in first grade, so I have some memories of learning how to read. I still own some of the books that teachers used with me when I was learning English and I have to tell you that when I look at them now, they're AWFUL, but when I was six, I loved them. I think for me, the story didn't matter: learning, understanding, and conquering the words did. So while there are certainly books that would make it more fun, I think the act of reading can be exciting in itself. Good luck!

  5. Anna: I'm so glad you shared your memories of learning to read. It's really nice to hear a different perspective. I can completely see how mastering reading can be a challenge and a success, and the story might not matter. Thanks!

  6. Anne-

    I don't really remember first learning to read either, but I do remember my son's experience. He went to a Waldorf School that believed that one had to be developmentally ready to read. There was no "forcing." He had lots of reading readiness activities like being told lots of stories, telling lots of stories, drawing stories, acting out stories, and of course being read to a lot.

    I have to admit that I did get rather worried when he still wasn't reading in his third grade year. Then during the winter break of that year, he picked up a book, specifically one of the Moomintroll series (lots of text, barely any pictures) and fluently and articulately began reading. He at once became a voracious reader (and still is at 24).

    I don't think anyone really understands how it is that we learn to read, but I am convinced that there is a huge developmental component that is ignored. Being forced to read too early does not create lifelong readers.

    I totally support your subversive approach!

  7. Wow, Jan. I would have been worried by third grade, too! But how amazing to see him reading like that! You must have been blown away. And what an incredible justification of the Waldorf method.

    It's been so interesting hearing everyone's stories... really reinforces that we're all individuals and learn in our own ways. It's a shame schools can't do more to accommodate that.

    All of this also makes me feel a bit better about my plan for contraband books! =)

  8. I think I started by retelling stories I'd heard so much that I had them memorized. At some point the connection between the words and the letters clicked. Now I'm watching Miranda recite whole books back to me and think she's doing pretty much the same thing. (Her current favorites: Hop on Pop and Spot's Birthday).

    I am in full agreement on the contraband books, though. Reading by itself is meaningless, it's wanting to find out what happens that makes you want to do it.

  9. Anne,

    I was going to write about the development issue, but Jan covered it. Watching Luc and Maisie at Lab has been a learning experience, too. They listen to stories being read aloud often, and I bring my 7th grade advisory to read with them one-on-one. Luc and Maisie love all kinds of stories, even ones that I find repetitious and boring, and sometimes they seem NOT ready for the more funny, clever and tricky children's books that you mention. Luc loves Where the Wild Things Are, though, and that makes me happy. They are only four, and like Jan, I think, hope and believe they will read each in their own time and way.

    Your volunteer work sounds wonderful -- and I agree 100% about being subversive. Teaching itself should be a subversive act, if done well.

  10. Alicia: Oh, I'm glad you shared your experiences! If I had to guess, that's how I would have imagined I learned how to read, too. The trend right now seems to be phonics, which doesn't feel familiar to me at all--scares me a little, honestly, but surely as a Carleton English major I can figure it out! =)

    Peggy: I love that sense of community, that your students want to read with your children. How interesting that you feel your kids don't get some of the more clever books... I think it builds a bit on what Anna said earlier. Obviously we want to share good stories, but for a small child the littlest things, words, pictures, might be fascinating in and of themselves.

    And I LOVE that thought about teaching as subversion.

  11. I remember learning to read: how weird certain letters looked, how I loved letters like H, M, O, A and V because they were symmetrical. Words delighted and baffled me -- to this day, I remember the joy of figuring out how to combine letters to make words.

    We taught our kids to read English using Jolly phonics -- we had reservations about this too, but it worked. Once they'd mastered the basics, we bought dozens of books of all kinds. We'd read them out loud a couple of times; the girls got good at anticipating the endings of sentences after a while. After a dozen readings, they could reconstruct the story.

    Finding stories that will interest kids, though -- that is the most important thing a teacher can do.

  12. Kudos for your volunteer work, Anne! I've done similar work in local schools and after-school programs and have found it very rewarding.

    I actually taught my girls to read (we homeschool) using the Bob books (simple stories that focus on specific sounds; they are designed to build confidence) and using Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. One daughter began reading at 4; the other at 7. It was fairly easy because both wanted to learn how to read. They continue to be avid readers.

    I agree with jyourist (above) that much of the developmental process is ignored (at least in the States) in favor of getting a child to read in kindergarten. Then, once a child masters the mechanics of reading, his reading instruction is essentially over! This is horrible in my opinion, for it is after we learn *how* to read that then we must be taught/encouraged about the joy of reading broadly and imaginatively (not just fiction, non-fiction offers lessons in reading with imagination) and then, even later, a child should be brought along to understand how to read *critically*.

    I think some children will always find their way to imaginative reading levels, but I think the strong emphasis on reading early stunts many children's interest in imaginative reading.

    For example, I worked with a 8 year old last spring on her "reading" problem because she hated anything to do with reading. She had trouble **imagining** anything she read. (Simple similes were beyond her. We'd play a game where she'd say she was (adjective) and I'd ask, "You are as tired/happy/bored as a ____." And, then she got to ask me to fill in the blanks, and then we'd build a story. However, she rarely could fill in that blank. She had trouble with any language that was not straightforward.) Very bright girl, but had been taught to read too early.(In my opinion, at least.)

    Sigh. Can you tell I'm a bit passionate on this subject? So, yes, I support your plans to smuggle those books in! Let them ENJOY as many books as possible.:D

  13. Mary: Good to hear a phonics success story. And also all of your own, lovely memories of first discovering words. I wish I could remember more of my life before reading.

    Bridgette: Thanks. I'm really hopeful for the volunteering. I mean, I get to read with kids! How could it be anything but rewarding?

    Really interesting to hear your thoughts about the reading process, and how we stop teaching children to read after they master the mechanics of reading. Perhaps your theory can be applied broadly to many academic disciplines in American schools. When I worked for a struggling Chicago Public School, I was shocked by my students' rigid approach to learning, and their inability to imagine anything. So sad, when we have experienced so much joy in books and learning.

    I never thought of this in terms of reading, but yes, at the heart of it, that's my fear about this program, too. So yes... I'm definitely seeing some book smuggling in my future! =)


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