How to Teach Reading
Reading is one of the most important skills that a person can have. This post is all about what reading skills are important to target, particularly if you are homeschooling your child.
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Components of Skilled Reading
Here’s a rundown of the reading skills to target, and why. Don’t worry about there being so many! Just sitting and reading with your child is enough to work on most of these.
A parent in a homeschooling Facebook group recently asked if she should try to teach her child to read and write Arabic at the same time as English. I could see her concern. Arabic uses a different alphabet than English, and is read in the opposite direction. You have to hold your book facing the opposite way and remember to read the sentences starting at the right hand side. But the vast majority of people can learn to read and write in multiple languages, including multiple systems of writing.
The set of rules that defines how a language is printed in books is called print conventions.
As children get older, they begin to learn about the different parts of books – the table of contents, index, and glossary, for example. They also learn how to distinguish between different types of books and when to use each one.
A few children, mainly those with specific learning disabilities, struggle to master print conventions. They might not return to the correct side of the page to read the next sentence or might read a word backwards. There are plenty of strategies to help with this, but the most important is lots of exposure to books.
Decoding is what everyone thinks of as “reading”. A child who can decode can open up a book and read it on the spot, even if there are words that she’s never seen before. She can sound the new words out using the alphabetic “code” of sounds and symbols. Decoding starts off with individual letter sounds and then proceeds to letter combinations, like “bl”, “ea” or “ow”.
When I was growing up, “phonics” was an important part of early reading instruction. But it went out of fashion for a while. The politics of how and why this happened are beyond the scope of this post. This article from 1997 provides a pretty good insight, if you’re curious. Otherwise, suffice it to say that it got VERY controversial to teach phonics, and many schools stopped.
In education graduate school, I was taught that children figure out the “code” gradually, from lots of exposure to books. Supposedly, teaching decoding systematically caused children to hate reading.
I have to say I have not found this to be true. Either as a teacher or as a parent of a new reader.
Why decoding (phonics) is essential for skilled reading
Harping ONLY on phonics, at the expense of ever reading a real book, wouldn’t be very exciting. But this is not what happens in real life. In real life, children get to hear lots of interesting stories and become motivated to learn to sound words out on their own. They’re actually excited to be let in on the secrets of how to sound out words. And relieved that they’re not expected to just “figure it out” mysteriously, without adult support.
Without knowing the rules of how to sound out words, reading is mysterious. It’s haphazard. If you happen to encounter a word you’ve never seen before, it’s easy to get confused. Guessing based on context or meaning is helpful, but only to a point.
Phonics can be made into a game! We enjoy Teach Your Monster To Read, a free and fun game for your tablet or computer. We also play Bananagrams and guessing games based on the letter sounds.
The best way to grow your child’s confidence in decoding, in my view, is to use BOB Books. These are short, easy to read books that systematically build upon one another. In the beginning, my child memorized them, so we pointed to various words out of order to be sure that he was reading them! Later on, he caught on that he couldn’t just memorize or guess, and started to actually sound them out. We bought the first three boxes of BOB Books and got the rest at our local library. It was a sad day when we realized that we’d been through them all!
Another free resource we enjoy is Progressive Phonics. These are small printable books that teach the patterns of phonics in a systematic way. I appreciate that there are books for concepts far beyond the Bob Book level.
As a former reading teacher, I have resources to recommend for when your child is older. However, for young children, I recommend staying away from workbooks (unless your child wants to emulate an older sibling) and sticking with games and books. There’s plenty of time for more structured word work later on.
Phonics for older children
The Explode the Code series is a great way to practice the components of phonics. The books are organized around a vowel sound or set of sounds. It’s a workbook series, but has a light touch. There’s some circling and coloring, and a little bit of writing individual letters. There’s a series for younger learners, if a younger sibling in the household reaaallly wants to copy older brother or sister. These workbooks do not require fluent reading at all, which makes it great for a beginner.
Words Their Way is not a workbook at all, but a program. It’s a great system for studying phonics and spelling at the same time. It has an assessment series, extensive word lists, and activity ideas and games. What I love about this approach is that it incorporates exceptions (called “oddballs” in the book) and is very adaptable for different ages. You can go all the way from short vowels up to Greek and Latin roots. I used WTW with elementary school aged kids extensively as a reading teacher, and most recently with a high school boy that I tutored.
Why not just memorize sight words?
When my son first started reading, he was memorizing a lot of sight words. This worked well, as many common English words don’t follow regular phonics rules. However, it was super important to make sure that he wasn’t only relying on memorization. This would limit him to only being able to read words that were already familiar, and only as many as his memory could handle comfortably.
As children get older, they encounter many words in print that they don’t hear spoken. Reading actually becomes the primary way that they learn this new vocabulary. Many students get to about 3rd grade and find that reading gets exponentially harder, especially science or social studies texts. This is because they’ve been taught to over-rely on sight words, rather than sound out the new words using their decoding skills.
Learning decoding rules really helps with spelling as well. Many spelling rules make more “sense” and are easier to remember if you have learned about vowels, consonants, and syllable types.
When I think about fluency, I always think of Captain Kirk from Star Trek. He. Talked…. LikeTHIS!
I have worked with many struggling readers who read every passage and story like Captain Kirk. Not because they studied acting with William Shatner, but because they weren’t yet fluent readers.
Fluent reading is smooth, expressive reading. Most beginning readers read letter by letter, and then word by word. This is normal and fine. The eventual goal, though, is to read for enjoyment and comprehension. So we also want our new readers to get the feeling of what it’s like to breeze through a book without having to Captain Kirk it all the way through.
This is why it’s good to give new readers a range of books, including some that are “easy”. An “easy” book, with no hard words or new sound combinations, is perfect for practicing fluent reading.
This is the ultimate goal of reading – to understand what you’ve read! It’s really no fun if you don’t understand what’s going on. Comprehension is a multi-faceted set of skills that includes:
Learning new words and what they mean. This is probably the single most important way to help your child, no matter what their age. Words encountered in writing are often quite different from everyday spoken speech. Readers who don’t understand the vocabulary in what they’re reading have to work much harder, and get less out of the text.
Syntax is how we put words together grammatically to make sentences. The simplest sentence, such as “I like it”, has to follow syntax rules. You wouldn’t say “Like it I”!
The same rules that govern the syntax of “I like it” also apply to complicated sentences. Like this one: “In the mornings, when I’m usually wide awake, I love to take a walk through the gardens and down by the lake, where I often see a duck and a drake, and I wonder, as I walk by, just what they’d say if they could speak, although I know that’s an absurd thought.” (That’s from Schoolhouse Rock: Conjunction Junction!)
An easy way to remember what syntax is – think of Yoda from Star Wars. Speaks with an odd syntax, he does. But easy to imitate, he is. Once you understand how Yoda flips sentences around, you can copy him. (Or: copy him, you can.) If you’re really into linguistics or Star Wars, or both, this article does a deep dive into the weeds of Yoda’s speech patterns.
For your young child, it’s helpful to restate a complex sentence with a simpler syntax. Better yet, ask your child to do it!
There’s nothing more natural than two people talking to each other. But in print, there are specific ways to tell who’s speaking, and they can get tricky. Authors don’t like to include the characters’ names every single time they open their mouths, so they use shorthand like “He said” or “She added”. As the reader, you’re expected to keep track of who “he” and “she” are.
As books get harder, the number of characters multiply. It can get confusing as to who’s saying what, and who’s in the room listening to what’s being said. A strategy I use with young children is to act out a scene – you can use Legos or dolls if you don’t have enough people to take on every character. Using dramatic voices makes it fun!
Many struggling readers prefer graphic novels to regular books. One of the reasons why is that it’s almost always obvious who is speaking! If your child seems to be getting confused, try reading books together that have more visuals, or make your own comic strip as you read to keep track of the dialogue.
This skill is also called “reading between the lines”. And it can be hard to do! As books get harder, authors layer in more “hidden” meanings. I like to tell kids that as readers, they have to be detectives and search for the clues that will reveal how characters feel, think, and behave.
Author’s point of view
You might think that non-fiction books are easier to comprehend. After all, they state facts. What could be more concrete than that? However, skilled readers are still alert to nuance when they read non-fiction. Often, there is disagreement about what is “fact”. An author’s point of view is very important to figure out! Discerning author point of view (or bias) is especially important in this day and age.
So much of what we read online is presented as obvious fact when it is, in fact, someone’s perspective. People from all political positions tend to see their own side as “just factual” and the other side as having “biased opinions”. Being able to deal with this complexity when reading is vital! This is an advanced skill that kids must learn in order to become an educated member of society.
Genres and text conventions
Although there are some books that just refuse to fit into any genre, most books follow at least a vague blueprint. Mysteries, encyclopedias, romance novels, and comic books all have different formats. You have a framework for what to expect when you pick up each genre. Skilled readers do this so easily that we forget it isn’t intuitive.
In this series of clips from Star Trek, a human (Dr. Bashir) and his Cardassian friend (Garak, one of the great Star Trek characters of all time) discuss genres of literature. The Cardassians live in a militaristic dictatorship, as you might be able to infer from their literary genres, like the “repetitive epic”.
The last comprehension skill I’ll mention here is perhaps the most important of all. It’s self-monitoring – noticing what you are doing as a reader. It’s that feeling that you get when you have read the same sentence four times and haven’t understood it, so you decide to put the book down and go to bed. Or when you read “The cat caught the moose” and think “Wait a second… that didn’t make sense. Oh, mouse, not moose. The cat caught the mouse.”
Have you ever seen a reader plow through a text, tripping over words or reading in a monotone, only to get to the end and have no idea what the text meant? It’s so frustrating to watch a new reader making such a terrific effort to sound out words, while having no brain space left over to think, “What does this mean?” or “What do I think or feel about this?”
Self-monitoring is an important comprehension skill. It’s what lets you know that the sentence you just read didn’t
eat glue make sense. It’s what alerts you to re-read the sentence, whip out your dictionary, or flip back three pages to check on a detail you missed.
Putting it all together
After reading about all these different skills involved with reading, you might be feeling overwhelmed. There’s just so much to work on! The good news is that skilled reading is a lifelong process. Think of the books you were assigned to read as a child or teen – how much more sense they would make if you read them today. Learning to read is never really finished. So, we don’t have to stress out when our kids are still piecing it together.
What if my child is a struggling reader?
Spoiler alert: I am not one of those homeschoolers who advocates waiting until your child turns 7 so that they are “developmentally ready” to read. To me, that is a recipe for reading issues falling through the cracks, when the research shows that appropriate early intervention is beneficial.
There is a developmental spectrum of when children read. I’m not suggesting to panic. But we should keep in mind that reading is NOT a natural behavior the way that speaking or walking is. Left to their own devices, without formal instruction, children will learn to walk and talk.
But most, if not all, children need some instruction in order to perform the complex skills of reading that we’ve discussed in this post. How much instruction, and what type, varies with the child. However, research shows that systematic phonics leads to better outcomes than having children guess or remember sight words.
Throughout history, vast numbers of people never became literate. Reading is not innate or instinctual. Just look at the online comments on any website or social media, if you need reminding that literacy is not the natural state of affairs. If someone tells you that your child will naturally develop reading skills in a few years, smile and nod. Then back away slowly. That person has not read the research.
Waiting too long to get a child evaluated will NOT help the child learn to read. If your child is not making progress in reading, it’s important to consult with your pediatrician. Don’t feel badly about this. You’ve done nothing wrong. You’re being a good parent by getting help.