…is a question I am asked semi-frequently.
And the answer?
Um, I’m not.
At least not in the formal sense that people seem to be referring to.
And that’s because in my almost 12 years of teaching, I have found that the most important factor in building a strong, life-long reader is a solid foundation, not the fact that a child learned how to read before Kindergarten.
I’m not citing any research (though I know it’s out there), but I firmly believe this from my own experience as a Kindergarten, first grade and Reading Recovery teacher, and I know the experiences of my colleagues point to the same conclusion.
So, what do I mean by this?
Let me start by saying that I feel like as parents, we feel pressure from lots of different places to have our children reading before they begin Kindergarten. I know young children are like sponges and have an incredible capacity to learn new things quickly. That’s why programs like My Baby Can Read exist — because very young children can learn to read high-frequency words and decode new words they encounter.
And this is a big but (and apologies for that; I’m totally giggling right now…) — knowing how to read words is not everything. In fact, many teachers, myself included, would argue that it’s not reading. It’s just decoding words.
I touched on this in an earlier post, but reading instruction has evolved over the past two decades and we have learned that the most important thing for early readers to grasp is that reading must make sense. Comprehension has become just as important as reading accuracy and fluency on early reading assessments and on many standardized tests, the reading component is all or nearly all comprehension based. And yet, I have found that when children learn to decode words at an early age and begin reading books that are well above their age level, they come in with comprehension skills that are not at the same level as their decoding ability.
What happens is that very young children learn to quickly decode words which looks and sounds like the child is reading. Because once you know how to decode words, you really can decode almost anything. However, it can be argued that the child is not truly comprehending the text he is reading because he has only learned to quickly decode the words, rather than digging deeper and using comprehension strategies to fully understand the text.
For example, it’s safe to say that I know how to read. I’ve been doing it for about 28 years. But, put a graduate level physics text book in front of me, and while I’ll be able to read all the words, I sure as heck won’t be able to comprehend it without really (really, really) studying the text further, taking notes, referencing other texts and, let’s face it, having someone really dumb it down for me.
In other words, just being able to decode the words doesn’t really help me read the text.
And that’s similar to what we often see with children that come to school knowing how to decode words. Their parents will tell us that they can read the encyclopedia or the Wall Street Journal, and they probably can decode the words in those texts. But can they understand them? Probably not. In fact, what my colleagues and I usually find is that a child who is “reading” will be able to accurately decode texts that are well above grade-level, but they often struggle with the comprehension piece at that same text level. It is not unusual for us to have to go down several levels for a student to be able accurately read a text and appropriately comprehend it. Because of this, we have to help these children fill these gaps between their decoding ability and comprehension skills which we are, of course, happy to do, but it comes with breaking some old habits and having to slow down and back track a bit. (I do want to recognize that there are truly gifted children who can read and comprehend far above grade-level and it is amazing to talk with them about the books they are reading. In my experience, though, such truly gifted children are hard to come by and identify, especially in Kindergarten.)
It is because of this that I am very consciously choosing not to do any phonics books or early reading workbooks with Lil’ CB. Those little phonics sets you can buy are often cute and darling, but are not what we consider to be quality teaching materials. In fact, I’m going to be so bold as to implore you to please, please just say no to their pretty packaging and walk away from them!
So, what do we do then?
Well, the most important thing you can do is to READ to your child. Daily. Anywhere and everywhere. Read books about all different topics and read a variety of genres. Even read those books that you think are ridiculous, but your child enjoys! Read lots of different titles and read old favorites repeatedly. Keep books in different places all over the house and even in your bag and car. Make it fun for you and your child and interact with them as you read, as outlined in this previous post.
And as you read, talk about what you are reading. Talk about your favorite parts and characters. Talk about the pictures and size and placement of the words. Talk about any connections you have with the story. Talk about what you think might happen next. Talk about what you didn’t like! Because when you talk, you are not only building vocabulary and oral language skills, you are also building your child’s comprehension skills and forming that solid foundation for early independent reading.
Now, this doesn’t mean that I think you shouldn’t tell a child how to spell a word or what a word is if they are trying to read it. By all means, if your child is asking about words and sounds, go with it! It is quite common for children to pick up easily spelled words and be able to sound them out independently. That is still a valuable skill for children to have and learn and it is wonderful when they can do so at an early age! However, I recommend that it should not be the only or main focus of what you are working on with your child. Talk about those words and sounds, but do so in genuine ways, embedded within real reading and writing tasks (see this post for more on that). By building on their interests in words and sounds while focusing on comprehension, you will only strengthen your child’s literacy foundation and help them to see the reading and writing process as a whole, rather than isolated parts.
What is most exciting about this is that while we have seen what happens when there are certain gaps between decoding ability and comprehension skills, we have also seen what happens when children come in with that solid foundation. And what we have found is that when those children come in with a solid foundation, they are ready to quickly build on that foundation and inevitably, they take off on their reading skills. It is amazing to see! Such children will enter Kindergarten on grade-level in terms of their actual reading ability and more often than not, they will make much more than a year’s worth of growth in their reading because they were ready to learn and build on their foundation. It’s one of my favorite parts about teaching!
We are striving to continue to build that foundation for Lil’ CB during this final year before Kindergarten. And to see the way he loves listening to stories and looking at books on his own warms my heart and makes me confident in knowing we are slowly but surely filling in that foundation…