How to Jumpstart Reading for Your Kids and Grand Kids
Create a lifelong love of literature and reading the most natural way
Reading — the most essential life skill
Reading is the most essential life skill a child should learn in school— but don’t wait until kindergarten to get started. There is something called “reading readiness” that begins at home. When kids arrive at school without it, the deficiency is readily apparent to their kindergarten teacher.
I have taught first and second grades in public school, but more importantly, I’m married to a fabulous kindergarten teacher with thirty-four years of classroom experience. Although she is now retired, she continues to practice her craft with our ten grandchildren. We have spent many hours discussing the aspects of reading readiness and precisely what it takes to succeed in school.
Did you grow up surrounded by books? Do your kids and grand kids have access to lots of books?
Reading readiness comes from a child’s experience with books. When a child can first hold up their head and focus their attention on a page, it’s time to begin reading them illustrated picture books. I exaggerate a bit only to make the point that it’s never too soon to start reading to your kids.
There are so many excellent books to choose from and not just fiction. There is an equal number of non-fiction books filled with interesting facts about our world that are endlessly fascinating to young children.
While reading actual books (avoid ebooks for now), kids learn there is a front and a back to a book, words are arranged in lines and are read from left to right, top to bottom, and pages are turned from right to left, one at a time to follow the story.
People might consider reading simply saying or pronouncing words, but that is just one minor aspect of reading. When you read a book to a young child, they learn new language and new vocabulary as each story unfolds. They are also learning to assemble the story in their minds to visualize the details that don’t appear in the pictures but are essential to the story.
Your child will re-tell their favorite story, then match up the words.
A clear indication of progress comes when a child can take their favorite book and retell the story back to you as they turn through the pages. Being able to assemble a story in a child’s mind and remember the entire storyline is a critical part of comprehension and a component of reading readiness.
Kids will have their favorites, and you might feel you are losing your mind as they ask for the same book to be read again and again — but reread it anyway.
An amazing thing happens. As they read the book, retelling the story, they begin the match up the words on the page with their retelling. Pretty soon, they can pretty much read the book back to you, pointing out each word.
Sure, they have them memorized, and that seems a bit fake — until they begin picking out those same words on signs, in other stories, and in different contexts.
What is the instant reader?
An instant reader is a child who comes to school reading without any organized or formal reading instruction.
In my preparation to become a teacher, I interviewed many parents of instant readers looking to uncover the magic. Every parent I interviewed told the same story — they read hundreds of picture books to their children, many of the stories hundreds of times.
It was simply a comforting mother/child, father/child part of everyday life until one day, much like I explained above, their child was retelling the story page by page until they were reading the books on their own. Then inexplicably, they were reading brand new books on their own as well.
In the school setting, this approach to reading is called Whole Language instruction. It is not well suited to the classroom setting because it’s a bit messy, it appears unorganized, and can not be tested and measured in tiny increments.
Do you remember how you learned to read? I didn’t have a pleasant experience. I recall the misery of endless summer school sessions. While other kids were in the Eagles, the Hawks, or the Flamingos I was always relegated to the Vulture reading group. None of us could read and we knew it!
The typical school approach to reading.
Once our children get into school, reading instruction becomes rigid and structured with constant testing to measure minute fractional steps. Educators have become so desperate to produce proficient readers that structured academics have even been forced down into kindergarten. If you do a bit of research into the best ways to teach reading, you will run into the standard party line:
The National Reading Panel found that specific instruction in the major parts of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) is the best approach to teaching most children to read. Instruction should also be systematic (well-planned and consistent) and clear.
The panel’s analysis showed that the best approaches to reading instruction have the following elements:
1. Explicit instruction in phonemic awareness
2. Systematic phonics instruction
3. Methods to improve fluency
4. Ways to enhance comprehension
No accomplished reader reads by phonics.
Phonics is the accepted method of teaching reading, and I believe it is why many kids fail to learn to read and end up hating reading for life.
No one reads by phonics — it’s simply an intermediate process and not a particularly useful one — the English language has far too many exceptions to the phonic rules. The human brain is phenomenal. It has no problem recognizing tens of thousands of words on sight just as you recognize them as you are reading this text.
The only time an accomplished reader uses phonics is when they encounter a word that they have never seen before — they resort to their knowledge of phonics to figure out how to pronounce the new word. They already have a good idea of the meaning of the new word from the passage's context.
“A good reader, who has a cruising speed of 300 words per minute, can quickly read through fiction or magazine articles that are of interest.” — Iris
No one phonetically sounds out words at 300 words per minute — you simply recognize them on sight. Even phonics practitioners acknowledge sight words. In kindergarten, your child will get a list of the first 100 critical sight words. They fail to recognize or even grudgingly admit that a person’s entire vocabulary becomes words that are recognized on sight. Once you recognize entire words as a whole, you never sound them out again.
The Whole Language approach to reading does much more than pronounce words — it builds comprehension and fluency too.
Whole Language reading instruction bypasses the phonics and builds your child's inventory of sight words much faster — without killing off their love of reading. With Whole Language reading comprehension and fluency are come naturally.
Before a child independently reads their first word, they are practicing comprehension by listening to an entire story and making sense of it. Vocabulary development is natural as you read a story and explain new words. Kids naturally ask, “What does that word mean?” as they seek to make sense of the story. Fluency and tempo are modeled every time you read, simply by the natural way you tell a story or read a book.
How I used music to make Whole Language Instruction work at school
In my first placement in a small rural school, I was assigned a second/third combination class. The kids could read — I just had to keep the ball rolling and improve on their skills.
I found new inspiration in preparation for the school’s winter program. All the primary classes gathered in the multipurpose room to learn the holiday songs we were to perform. The leaders taught the songs by putting up the individual words of the songs in large hanging pocket charts with rows of transparent sleeves. As we practiced, the leader would point to each word using a yardstick. All the kids had to do was follow along and sing.
My reading program was born!
The following year I was assigned a first/second combination class at another school. I had a mix of mostly first-grade beginning readers. I had to teach the first graders to read while pushing the second graders to improve their skills — I taught reading through song and the kids loved it.
Each week we learned a new song. Monday, I’d introduce the song of the week. We’d discuss the meaning of new words, then I’d read it through a couple of times. Next, we’d add the music and we’d sing it multiple times for repetition.
The music was magic
The kids loved the music and the singing. All they had to do was follow the yardstick pointer with their eyes as we sang the words. We’d constantly sing and review our previous songs. We’d spend about forty-five minutes doing this each day and usually sing a song or two before going home.
I consistently got better test scores than the other primary teachers. I know that my reading instruction was lively and never painful. I never forced my students through the awful process of stumbling over a passage attempting to sound out the words. I taught my kids how to read without embarrassment and without making them hate it.
Of course, I also read countless books to my students and met in small reading groups as well. But for building vocabulary and sight words, the backbone of actually reading, I relied on song.
Let your child be your guide
At home, one on one, let your child be your guide. Provide a variety of books and they will choose their favorites. Reading to a child is a terrific bonding experience. I have yet to find a child who was not interested in books. Reading together builds all the reading readiness skills necessary to prepare your child for school and often leads to early readers, reading by the time they enter kindergarten.