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The Whens And Hows Of Reading

When delving into research on how kids learn to read, of course I wanted to discover what research has actually found, rather than choosing research findings that confirm my fondest notions while ignoring anything I don’t want to believe. However, that proved to be tricky.

For one thing, study after study has found that kids who are “behind” in reading in Kindergarten and Grade 1 fall farther and farther behind their fellow students as they get older. The authors of these studies urge early identification of reading problems and learning disabilities as well as early intervention to solve problems, accommodate disabilities, and catch them up.

However, psychologist and author Peter Gray points out that it is only important that kids learn to read “on schedule” if those kids attend traditional school. As we know, most assignments in and assessments for every subject – not just “Reading” – depend on reading.

Peter Gray goes on to explain, in his article Children Teach Themselves to Read, that kids who do not attend traditional schools – kids who attend Sudbury-style schools, unschool, or homeschool with flexible and individualized curriculum – can learn to read much later without any ill effects. These non-traditional students often learn science and math and history through DOING things – doing science experiments, exploring nature, playing games, programming robots, participating in living history events, touring everything from old forts to modern courthouses, and much more. Many un-/homeschooling families enjoy read-aloud sessions even when kids are older. Assessments are often minimized or delayed, and bubble-in tests are often replaced by portfolios or oral assessments.

Gray points out that, without the pressure of text-heavy school instruction from an early age, children are free to learn to read when they themselves are actually ready, and when they see a need for it. The age at which this happens varies widely from child to child, ranging from ages 3 to 13; yet assessment of these kids at age 15 shows almost no difference between kids who learned to read “early” and those who learned “late.”

I DON’T want to believe the “three pivotal longitudinal studies” that the American Federation of Teachers used to show that waiting for kids’ readiness “rarely works: late bloomers usually just wilt.” I DO want to believe Peter Gray’s much smaller study of unschooled students. And even while admitting this bias, I would argue that Gray is right: it is the structure of school itself that makes problems for kids who are out of synch with the curriculum, and it is the traditional educational practices that create reading problems and learning “disabilities” where, in many cases, there is just variance in readiness.

The take-away: ➢ Make sure there are many and varied sources of print in our kids’ environments. ➢ Read aloud to your kids. ➢ Look for signs of readiness and respond to interest in independent reading. ➢ Support kids’ efforts once they embark on learning to read.

What else does research tell us about reading instruction?

According to Cambridge researcher David Whitebread, all children benefit from more play and exploration time before their formal education begins. He suggests not starting ​formal education and literacy lessons until age 7.

The take-away: ➢ Let kids play and explore while they are young. ➢ Don’t begin curricula and textbooks until age 7 or older. ➢ If children spontaneously read before age 7, allow them to read as much as they like, but don’t launch into formal lessons.

According to multiple articles and research studies, there is no one reading instruction program or technique that “works” for every child. Some children respond better to phonics instruction, and others to “whole word” instruction; most kids do well with a mixed approach. Gray points out that many children teach themselves to read without any instruction at all, and that they often go very quickly from (seemingly) non-readers to fluent readers. This rapid transition can seem mysterious, but a lot of learning has been going on “behind the scenes.” It’s worth noting that some kids don’t “magically” learn to read on their own and do need help and support.

The take-away: ➢ Don’t splurge hundreds of dollars on a particular program that promises results with every child. ➢ Don’t hold so firmly onto any preconceived notion that you cannot respond to the particular needs of your child. ➢ Once your child demonstrates readiness for and excitement about reading, be ready to use a variety of materials and methods to help them learn.

According to Susan Gathercole and Tracy Alloway, about 70% of kids who experience difficulty learning to read have working memory problems. With a smaller mental workspace in which they can hold information while processing it, they have difficulty remembering the gist of what they are reading while they are sounding out the next word.

The take-away: ➢ If your child seems to lose track of the sense of a story, check out Gathercole and Alloway’s Understanding Working Memory.

Character-driven fiction helps people learn social skills and empathy, whereas plot-driven fiction and nonfiction don’t have similar results.

The take-away: ➢ Be sure to include some literature with rich, complex characters as you read aloud to your children. ➢ Encourage informal discussions on what the characters are thinking and feeling, their motivations and goals. ➢ Include literary fiction and nonfiction on your shelves and library orders.

Attempts to push reading with kids who are not ready can backfire. The school system has been providing generations of proof that pushing can have disastrous results, but Gray’s study confirms that similar negative results can occur with parental pushing.

The take-away: ➢ Look for signs of readiness: knowing the alphabet, enjoyment of looking at books and magazines, pretending to read, and the ability to repeat sentences of seven or eight words. ➢ Once you detect readiness, offer to help your child learn to read independently, but be ready to back off and try again later if your child seems unwilling or confused.

Penelope Trunk points out that today’s kids don’t need to memorize as much as students in the past did, but they do need to become great at searching for information and handling high volumes of information. She suggests teaching older kids to scan material so that they know what is available and where to find info if and when they need it. (I would add that kids also need critical reading skills, including analyzing and checking multiple sources.)

The take-away: ➢ Think about the very different reading skills that are required by our hyper-connected world. 

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