By Michelle Boyle
“We don’t often think of it this way but reading can be likened to learning to walk or ride a two-wheeler. These are milestones that children reach at different times, and whether or not they reach them earlier or later, has no bearing on their intelligence,” explains Alisa Berger, Director of Lower School, JCDS.
When our children were between 8 to 24 months, did we ask other parents, “Does your child walk yet?” No, because, of course, we could see for ourselves but also because we knew that there was an appropriate developmental range for our children to start walking, and eventually every child learns to do it (unless there some underlying medical issue that needs to be addressed). So then, why do we get upset when our children aren’t reading in kindergarten? I guess, considering what’s at stake, it’s because we feel (or are made to feel) that we can’t afford to assume our kids will eventually learn how to read. This is a misconception. Waiting often is developmentally appropriate
Many early and self-taught readers are “whole language readers” and thus do not have strong phonemic or decoding skills, so when they encounter a more challenging word, they don’t have strategies for breaking down the word into syllables and discerning its parts. This can impact a child’s ability to sound-out challenging words and often has an impact on a child’s ability to spell accurately in later grades. “We want to give our students the tools to persevere through difficult texts, and a key part to this is developing phonemic awareness and decoding skills,” explains Brenda Dolan, 1st grade teacher, JCDS.
In a Jewish day school, phonemic awareness is even more important as students are learning to read and write in Hebrew as well as in English. “We have seen time and time again–early and self-taught readers, who have not developed phonemic awareness or decoding skills, struggle to read Hebrew, and the more they struggle, the less likely they are to embrace learning it,” Berger asserts. This is one of the many reasons why there is so much emphasis placed on building strong literacy skills in the first grade.
It is also important to recognize the difference between learning to read and reading to learn. In grades K-2, the focus is on learning to read–letter recognition and sound awareness, and later, typically in 3rd grade, students begin reading to learn. This is an important distinction, and one that should be respected. “We are not going to label a 1st grader a struggling reader because this child hasn’t mastered learning to read; this is our expectation. That said, if a child is not making progress in terms of letter recognition and phonemic awareness from month to month and from year to year, then this raises a red flag, and additional interventions and instructional methods are implemented.
Here are some suggestions for what you, as a parent, can do to help promote and partner with us to promote literacy development.
Literacy Tips for Parents
- Accept that there is no should be in terms of early readers K-2. Every child moves at his/her own pace.
- Evaluate your child on his/her own terms. Don’t compare your child’s reading abilities to other children’s, especially siblings.
- Help your child find a “just right” book by having them read a page or two aloud to you. If they cannot read five or more words on the page, then this book is too difficult for them at this point. Enjoy the process of finding a “just right” book together. You can even work together to categorize books and organize a home library.
- Know that the leveled books you buy in the store (level 1: beginning reader, level 2: emerging reader, etc.) are not necessarily “just right” — always do the five finger test–if there are five or more challenging words, then the book is too difficult.
- Embrace pictures books. Many picture books contain complex stories that are beautifully written and wonderful for children to hear. Also, children use the pictures as clues to help them decipher the story, which is also an essential literacy skill for them to develop.
- Embrace large font size. Large type size helps children recognize letters and helps trains their eyes, especially in recognizing sight words.
- Recognize and accept that in a Jewish day school your child is learning two languages. It is perfectly normal for them to reverse letters and even get confused about which side of the page to begin reading.
- Spend time helping your child develop phonemic awareness. Sound out letters and parts of words, and have fun with it! Play games by eliminating parts of words- “How would CAT sound if you get rid of initial sound: AT.” “How would word DAD sound if you eliminate final sound: DA.”
- Ask comprehension questions. Have fun discussing the book with them. We don’t just want our children to read; we want them to understand what they are reading.
- Identify developmentally appropriate reading material. That is why even though a child is able to read a third-grade level book, we do not always encourage them to do so, because the content may not be developmentally appropriate. Remember, just because they can; it doesn’t mean they should.
- Remember, no matter your child’s age, continue reading books to and with them. Make this a family ritual. This could be a time that everyone looks forward to and celebrates. Reading should never become a power struggle.
- When you watch TV with your child, ask comprehension questions. Use this as an opportunity to show them that stories everywhere!
- Ask teachers for book recommendations for your child. They’re happy to help you. This is what teachers get excited about!