Before the pandemic, many American children struggled to read well. Now, the pandemic has thrown early elementary teachers a curve ball in teaching reading; they must help kids make connections between sounds and letters without being in the same room or putting all five senses to work in the process. At the same time, new digital technologies could help struggling readers connect with the kind of systematic phonics instruction that has been proven effective, especially for children with dyslexia. Remote learning also guarantees that parents of early readers must take a much more active role in helping their children than was previously expected. In such a confusing time, what can teachers, district leaders and parents do to support beginning readers?
Education Post recently spoke with literacy expert Susan Lambert, the host of Science of Reading: The Podcast, and vice president of early literacy instruction at Amplify, about meeting these big challenges. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are the pros and cons of teaching beginning reading remotely?
In remote, there are more unknowns than knowns. There are many, many kids who don’t have access to technology, and they’re left in a gap. While it’s true we might be able to get kids to learn to read [remotely] using really structured curricula, if they don’t have access to the tech, they’re left behind.
One of the things that’s effective for kids is systematic instruction in phonics. But teachers are using a potpourri of apps. There’s no control over how we’re building curriculum for kids to understand, for review or to add on instruction. It could be we’re just throwing a lot of stuff at kids.
We know most reading failure is preventable. We know there are certain things we need to do to prevent it. There’s a misunderstanding about what those things are.
What does this have to do with the science of reading?
We’re throwing around this term “the science of reading,” without unpacking what the terms mean. Teachers and the general public don’t know what science means and they don’t know what reading means [in this context].
When we use the term “science of reading,” most people don’t understand the fundamental start of reading. The fundamental start of reading is speech. Writing is a technology developed to record the sounds of speech. But if you ask teachers where reading starts, most teachers will say, “the alphabet.” They don't recognize they need to go all the way back to the sounds of speech.
[Here’s what many teachers don’t understand, because no one has ever told them.] We weren’t born to learn to read, the same way we weren’t born to read computer code. The brain has to rewire itself to do it. It’s a language we have to learn, and the teaching part is really important. Although our brains can rewire themselves to read, no matter what language it is, English is especially tricky. It’s a very opaque language with deep orthography—meaning that there is not a simple one-to-one correspondence between English sounds and letters of the alphabet.
So, is it enough to teach sound-symbol correspondence? No. You have to teach how sounds map to letters, and you have to teach morphology, meaning parts of words, like prefixes and suffixes. English is a very rich language when it comes to vocabulary. It’s multilayered and it’s one of the languages that borrows the most from other languages. Most people don’t understand the complexity of teaching kids to read. For more on this, check out Seidenberg’s book, Language at the Speed of Sight.
We know when you’re learning to read, what are the easier things and what are the harder things on the developmental trajectory. We know what you need to know by the end of first grade. There’s a lot of research. We know the general development of reading and what instruction can support those phases of learning.
I think this gets dismissed in schools of education. In schools of education, we think science is a different content area. But science is the process we use to study reading. Many schools of education don’t even know what’s happening in cognitive science. Mississippi is one exception. They’ve started introducing reading science in the schools of education there.
What does all this mean for kids in early elementary classrooms?
Most of the classrooms in our country assume that language development is the harder thing and word recognition is the easier thing. But that’s backwards.
Language comprehension is a naturally occurring process. In utero, babies start hearing and developing receptive language. The harder process is to recognize a word in print. That requires explicit teaching.
When you teach how to decode a word, you should also teach how to spell the word—that makes a more stable connection for a child’s brain to map those words. If you are a very fluent reader, you’re likely a very fluent speller. They’re connected.
One of the things teachers typically don’t do is dictation. When teachers dictate, students are showing what they know about sound-spelling patterns. Spelling reveals error patterns that can be used to support reading instruction.
Aldine, Texas, is a district making a shift in how it understands reading. Baltimore is also making the shift. But many districts, schools, and classrooms haven’t even started.
What about precocious readers who read without formal instruction?
There are those, but there are very few of them. There are more kids who look like readers. They can pick up a book and “read” to me. From frequency of interaction, they have memorized the words. Many are word memorizers.
Some kids have figured out some aspects of the code. If they don’t get explicit instruction in the more complex aspects of the code, they’re going to hit a glass ceiling. They closely struggle to decode harder words.
Explicit, systematic instruction prevents reading failure and doesn’t hold those precocious early readers back.
What would you say to a parent of a kindergartner or first-grader who wants to help their child learn to read?
I would explain the Simple View of Reading in a clear and simple way. One challenge their child faces right now is mastering word recognition—how to lift the words off a page. If their teachers aren’t providing the context for kids to learn that, that’s a more complicated story.
My suggestion to parents is to focus on the language comprehension element. Read aloud to your kids. Talk to them about interesting topics. What can you learn together about dinosaurs on the Internet? Where does that lead?
A kid’s ability to comprehend text is correlated to their background knowledge and vocabulary. Parents can do that much more easily than they can teach the code. There is also some research that shows when kids have broader vocabulary and more exposure to knowledge topics, their brains are quicker at making the connections on word recognition.
But there are some simple strategies parents can try to foster word recognition, too. Have children focus on words, think about the sounds words make. Thinking about rhyming words is good, too.
For the older kids, multisyllabic words trip kids up. That’s where you go to those meaning units, to morphology. Split the word into the smaller parts that they can decode and put it back together. Box out prefixes and suffixes so kids get to the root of the word.
People talk about close reading for meaning. You can also do close reading with words themselves—pick a word and look into it deeply.
What would you say to a school or district leader who was interested in making the kind of shifts in mindset and curriculum that districts like Aldine and Baltimore are making?
State curricular adoptions can really distract from the main goal here. Education is prone to fads.
Schools that are using a curriculum product that follows a systematic scope and sequence are having the best results. Teachers know what to teach, and they know what students learned yesterday or a week ago. They can spend time figuring out how to talk with individual students and determine whether they are getting it.
Think about the opposite of that: a teacher who is teaching with a less-structured scope and sequence. They construct their units on the fly. It’s very difficult for them to figure out where kids are in their learning and what they need next. There’s no path to follow and they’re making it up as they go.
To learn to read well, kids actually need explicit, systematic instruction. You have to have an early literacy system in place that assesses skills kids need along the developmental continuum. Amplify’s DIBELS assessment does that. You have to have a core program—grade level instruction—to teach them what they need when they need to have it. You also need to provide intervention for kids who need more time and instructional support. All of those things have to speak the same language.
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Director at Future Ed. She was formerly Editorial Partner at Ed Post and is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to magazine covering Chicago’s public schools. There, her reporting won awards from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the International Reading Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.
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