Barbara Shea, Lower School Principal
If there is one area that is critical to a child’s education, it is reading. Reading has an impact on every subject area. The road to reading proficiency begins early in a child’s life and continues until fluency and comprehension are achieved concurrently. However, finding the right time to plant the seed for reading is one of finesse and hinges on some very clear developmental expectations that can vary from student to student.
In the Pre-K program, students come to school with abilities that reflect a broad spectrum: from an awareness of printed language to being able to sight read specific words. The Pre-K classroom is an ideal place to build an appreciation for story and language itself. The students are introduced to the letters of the alphabet and their sounds and brainstorm words that begin or end with a particular letter. Learning to rhyme, discriminating individual phonemes (the smallest units of sound that can differentiate meanings in the spoken word) within words, and breaking words into syllables are all skills that form the backbone of phonics. In addition, students become aware of the link between the oral and the written word and are encouraged to experiment with activities in both reading and writing. It may be simply writing their names on their work, recognizing their classmates’ names in the classroom or sharing a “story walk,” a retelling of a story by means of the illustrations in a book. We do see children who come to Pre-K who have begun the reading process by recognizing familiar words. This sight reading strategy is valuable when it is used together with a phonics program. Sight readers rely on memorizing words, and they can have difficulty in second and third grade decoding new multisyllabic words without the strategies provided in a comprehensive phonics program.
In Kindergarten teachers formally introduce our P.A.F. (Preventing Academic Failure) Multisensory Phonics Program. The students begin encoding (writing) the letter sounds as well as decoding (deciphering the sounds of the letters) consonant-vowel-consonant words, and over the course of the next two years, slowly move onto multisyllabic words. Some students begin reading at this point; others are just beginning the process. At this stage, all students receive individualized help from the teachers based on their needs. We do know that a child who is pushed to read before being developmentally ready to do so will feel frustrated, discouraged, and may shut down, unwilling to meet with disappointment. The teachers at the Kindergarten level are careful to challenge their students without overwhelming them, all the while focusing on the foundations of reading. The creation of students’ “pictionaries” is an example of an activity that focuses on their phonemic awareness in requiring students to draw pictures of things that incorporate a certain letter sound. For some children, they choose the letter sound at the beginning of the word; for others it is at the end of the word, and the most difficult of all is identifying the sound in the middle of the word. Each child works at his or her own level while building proficiency. The students also participate in writing their own stories. This sense of purposefulness empowers children to create passages that may involve a mixture of inventive and traditional spelling, as they begin to use the letter sound combinations they have come to know. The students’ desire to read their stories aloud can be a very strong motivator to learn to read.
But a balanced literacy program combines a multisensory approach to phonics and a reading workshop model. While phonics is a method of learning reading based on sounds and syllables, students also need to focus on reading fluency and comprehension. Once decoding becomes fluent, comprehension takes root. A child who labors over reading each word in a sentence will have difficulty grasping the overall meaning of the sentence. Small reading groups in Kindergarten through second grade allow students to practice oral reading, which is crucial to building fluency. Students also learn about character traits, settings, themes, vocabulary, and recognize an author’s purpose or audience. These discussions focus on drawing information from the text. Substantiating their opinions and answers with information from a passage in the book can be a difficult task for many students at this age, but it is an important skill that develops over time.
By third grade, there is an expectation that decoding has become automatic; students are reading in phrases with expression. Pacing the reading is important to reading clearly. Students are not reading too fast; they are reading for meaning. Everyone makes mistakes in reading aloud, but the question is whether the child self-corrects when key words can easily alter the meaning of the passage.
There are specific skills necessary to garner information from reading fiction or nonfiction books, and these skills are explicitly taught from Kindergarten onward in the classrooms and specials’ classes. Understanding vocabulary by means of contextual clues and learning to be an active reader are also critical tools. When students use post-its to write down comments or questions as they are reading, they are actively engaged in the reading process. Being an active reader requires reflection, as the readers question key elements while making connections from their readings to prior books, their own life experiences, and the world around them. Making these connections creates meaning for the reader and solidifies his or her understanding of the text.
The classroom teachers are constantly monitoring their students’ reading skills and progress. Throughout the Lower School, the same assessment instruments are used so the teachers can easily recognize each child’s capabilities as they move from grade to grade. The learning specialists, together with the classroom teachers, take a close look at all students to determine those students who may need extra help. The earlier the student can have intervention, the earlier the student will meet with success. It is equally important for the student to be reading at a level that is challenging but not overwhelming. A child should be independently reading a book with 98 percent accuracy. This will ensure that the few new vocabulary words will not impact the child’s comprehension. The more difficult books are introduced as instructional texts with teacher guidance. This year we have significantly expanded our Lower School collection of leveled books, so that all teachers have a broader library of instructional books to use in their book groups.
At home, reading books aloud to your child continues to be incredibly important. The books you choose should be beyond a child’s ability to decode but be well within his or her ability to understand the storyline. This is the best way to introduce new vocabulary and fire imaginations. In reading, ask your children questions about the characters and the plot, or ask them to predict what may happen next. These conversations provide the modeling for future independent reading. And if your child doesn’t know the answer to a question, it is the perfect opportunity to have him or her go back into the story… but not read on! Too many students wrongly feel that, “if I just continue reading, I will be able to figure it out.”
This short essay cannot begin to address all the skills necessary for reading development, but the two most important factors are a child’s enthusiasm for reading and persistence. Learning to read is not an easy feat; when we have become readers, it is easy to forget just how difficult it can be. Nevertheless, we do know that practice is essential. To be truly proficient one needs to read a variety of genres, and finding the right reading level for your child is important in providing the success that will ensure that he or she will always be searching for the next book to read.