My daughter is onto me. As I read bedtime stories to her, sometimes I'll stop, point to a word, and in my most convincing voice, and say, "Hmm, I don't know this one. C-A-P? Can you help me?"
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The almost-five-year-old, not falling for this nonsense at all, will then say to me, "Mum, just read it." And I'll keep reading. Like a chump.
I am fully confident she will learn to read when she learns to read, but as a parent, I sometimes wonder if I should be trying to speed up the process. I've followed the advice of friends and purchased BOB Books for beginning readers, and I often prompt her to sound words out. I can tell that she almost gets it, but I can also tell that I'm not much help. So when Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of Raising Kids Who Read, told me that parents don't need to worry about teaching young kids the mechanics of reading - and in fact, he warns against doing so - I felt free.
Parents, it turns out, are pretty crummy reading instructors, especially when they break out the flash cards, handwriting worksheets, rewards charts, and other traditional tools we all know and hate. "You don't know what you're doing," Willingham says of parents in general. "If your child encounters real difficulty, there's a good chance the child will go to school and think, 'Reading? Oh, that's that thing Mum and Dad bug me about, and it's hard for me to figure out, and I don't like it much.' Then the teacher has to try and overcome that first negative experience your child has had."
When parents get stuck on teaching kids how to read, they're missing their more critical duty, the one that will help put kids on a path to lifelong reading success: Teaching kids to love to read. Here's what to do instead.
Read Them A Lot of High-Information Texts
Willingham recently wrote the New York Times op-ed "How to Get Your Mind to Read", and it's fascinating. In raising readers, it appears that we're doing it wrong. Parents and teachers tend to think about the learning process in separate blocks. When kids are very young - around four, five or six - we teach them how to "decode" words. It isn't until Year 4 or 5 that we move onto comprehension. That's too late, Willingham says. "Decoding and comprehension are not the same thing," he tells me. "There are times when you can read content out loud but not understand what you're reading." In the later primary school grades, as texts become much more complex, comprehension becomes much more difficult. And therefore, children struggle.
Instead, we should think about our children as whole readers from the beginning. In his NYT piece, Willingham writes that "comprehension is intimately intertwined with knowledge". He suggests that parents should leave the teaching up to teachers, and simply read with kids. Read often. Read everywhere. Read for fun. Read fiction. Read nonfiction. Explore different topics. Traditionally, the texts in early primary school grades "have been light in content," Willingham writes. ("Mac sat on a mat," and so on.) Kids can soak in more complicated information and plots when you read to them than when they read texts themselves, so it's important to keep at it, following their natural curiosity.
Read With Purpose
When parents play teacher, kids can tell. "They think, 'Why are you asking me to read this? You read it. You're obviously just testing me,'" Willingham says. "And they start to resent it."
He says that parents can help kids read by taking advantage of situations where reading has some utility. "In our house, for a brief period of time, my youngest just thought it was hilarious fun when we'd ask her to clean her room but would do so by writing down on a slip of paper each task. 'Put away all your toys.' She would read the slip of paper, then go off and do it, and then come back for another slip of paper." (UM, brilliant.)
Other ideas: Write shopping lists together. Or read over your daily schedule. Willingham says, "When you're in the car, you can tell your child, 'I'm looking for Patrick Street. Can you help me find it?' Or say, 'Let's see how many letter Ts we see around here."
He says that parents are doing many great things already, such as reading books that play with speech sounds. "Dr Seuss is absolutely full of them," Willingham says. "Hearing rhymes, hearing alliteration, appreciating that there's something funny about the sentence, 'Good golly, gobs of green gate grapes!' - all of this helps."
Make Reading a Family Value
Ultimately, to teach kids to love to read, parents must love to read themselves. Parents should "support reading as a gateway to pleasure," Willingham says. Research has shown that parents who view reading as fun raise children who read better than those whose parents view reading as an academic skill.
It's about adopting a curiosity mindset. "Ask kids questions," Willingham says. "If all you're doing is telling them what to do, you're sending the message that speech is for the purpose of telling other people your thoughts," he says. "But if you're asking questions, you're sending the message that speech is for learning about the world."
What kids will gain goes way beyond the ability to decipher words on a page.