Should we worry about whether our earliest readers are learning to read, during the pandemic? Some point to concerning evidence of widening gaps in reading proficiency, especially in the early grades. Others call for less worry: “Our kids are not broken,” they say. “Let’s stop the ‘catch them up’ frenzy.”
While frenzy is never a good policy, neither is underselling the work we have to do. Instead of debating how much worry is the right amount of worry, let’s lean in to those research-based practices that we know can help.
Phonics instruction and practice helps students break the code
You know what’s hard, when you’re six? Learning to read via Zoom meetings. Learning to read at school while keeping your mask over your mouth and your nose while simultaneously remembering not to hug anyone.
Do you know what’s even harder than learning to read during a pandemic? Learning to read without solid instruction in phonics: the patterns that help you sound out words. Solid instruction in phonics means having a planned sequence, one that maps out when to introduce which spellings of which vowel sounds, for example. A systematic phonics sequence puts CAT and HAT before WEIGHT and FREIGHT.
Phonics supports kids as they read others’ words, and it also supports them as they write their own. For a 6-year-old learning to read, phonics is not just something abstract a teacher tells them, but also something tangible to play with. What more can I do with my magnetic letters? How many three-letter words can I make in a row, changing just one letter at a time?
If teaching systematic phonics isn’t top of mind for an early elementary teacher, changing that should become a top priority. Trying to get good literacy outcomes without good phonics instruction is like trying to pin the tail on the donkey while blindfolded and dizzy. Sure, we’ve seen someone succeed before, but overall, it’s just a setup for failure.
What about parents and guardians, though, who have no training in phonics instruction? Now more than ever, teachers and parents are working together to keep young children learning to read. To help with that, teachers can point families to little books, like the Bob Books, that offer practice with the right level of phonics, especially those with the sounding-out rules that were taught on a specific week. If long vowel teams like OA and AI are the focus in phonics work, little books about BOATS and RAIN and OARS and TAILS give kids direct practice.
For more decodable text sources, check out this list on the always-useful and research-based Reading Rockets site. To support good long-term word-reading strategies, we want kids who are just beginning to read practicing lots of words that set them up for success with their phonics rules. Those words are found in the highest ratio in decodable books, like those on the Reading Rockets list.
Teachers: Teach a clear phonics sequence.
Families: Practice those phonics skills at home with decodable texts.
Meaning-making takes great books and conversation
You know what’s boring, when you’re six? Having every book you encounter be about rats and mats, or about cans and pans. A diet of only phonics is like a diet of only steamed vegetables: we aren’t going to have anyone coming back for seconds, let alone becoming foodies, if we don’t have some more appealing food on the menu.
You know what’s really happy-making, when you’re six? Reading a book with someone like Dad, who does all the voices. Being listened to, interacted with, taken seriously when you share why you think that just happened in the book. It feels good to learn a new phrase or word that you didn’t know before and to try it out on your brother the next night at dinner. It feels good to understand something new about the world. Conversations about written text do wonders for the language comprehension and the knowledge building that lead to long-term reading comprehension.
Whether we are parents or teachers of beginning readers, we can spend time together with them enjoying engaging, interesting, challenging books. These aren’t the books that the just-beginning readers can handle on their own; these are books filled with unfamiliar words, with sentences that loop and pause and double back like gymnasts, finally sticking the landing perfectly at the end. High-quality, challenging texts bear reading more than once. They beg for conversation.
These days especially, there are times when things feel far from good. Comprehending what’s going on, both around us and inside of us, is a challenge whether we are six or sixty. When teachers or families open a book that reflects something about a child’s own worries or fears or confusions, that can open up the kinds of conversations that protect a child’s mental health. Caring relationships and good literacy learning go hand in hand, especially for our youngest ones.
Let’s stop wondering how much we should worry. Instead, let’s lean in and do what we can do.
Cindy Jiban has taught in elementary and middle schools, both as a classroom teacher and as a special educator. She earned her doctorate in educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, focusing on intervention and assessment for students acquiring foundational academic skills. After contributions at the Research Institute on Progress Monitoring, the National Center on Educational ...