August 2, 2021

The Challenges of Teaching Reading

I know from experience, from having done it, that teaching reading is a tremendous challenge, and that first-grader parents need to be experts at teaching students to read. Teaching reading does not require just one specific skill, but rather a large assortment of expertise. That makes parents superheroes in my book.

The most absorbent sponges for knowledge.

Fortunately, first graders are the most obviously absorbent sponges for knowledge. I believe that of seventh graders, too, but it’s not as obvious there. Seventh graders have some sort of cloaking device that first graders haven’t figured out—yet. That’s a story for another time. First-grade parents have to take the foundation students have gained at home, in pre-school, as well as kindergarten, and devise personalized plans for 20, or more students, who for the most part, don’t read.

Reading is a translation of a foreign language.

Reading plans may include letter and sight word recognition, knowing letter sounds, and combinations of letter-sound, as well as what happens when all those sounds blend together. The initial calling out of individual words then has to be done when more words are visible. But wait, that calling out, isn’t reading. To call out words without knowing what is meant isn’t reading. That requires comprehension skills. Calling out individual words then needs to change to scanning more words, at the same time, for meaning. For a child only used to listening to his/her own thoughts it is difficult to invite in, and recognize, those written foreign thoughts needing translation. And it is a translation, like learning a language, and I dare say, harder for most to fluently master.

What it takes.

We used to aim for a mid-school year for the many reading seeds planted, to begin to really take and blossom. I think the pressure to do that is tremendous. It used to keep me up at night figuring out ways to make it happen. That is the creative part that most forget. There are very few programs that can actually get the job done completely, without a creative first-grade teacher making the experience better. I’ve always thought that if corporations needed new ideas, they might do well to hire a few first-grade educators as consultants.

Digital reading leaves no one behind.

Most students, today, have the ability to use digital devices, with wonderful education apps, or at online learning resource sites, long before they enter school, as well as before and after school when they get there, and weekends at home, too. Think of that—learning possibilities in and outside of school. That sort of thing wasn’t possible in my generation, where Spot and Jane posters lined the classroom walls, and you either learned to read—or not. If you didn’t, you became the next teacher’s problem, unfortunately. You could get to fifth grade, as I did, and beyond, without knowing how to read. Fortunately, I had a fifth-grade teacher, who read to the class during lunch. It made me want to figure out that crazy code on the pages—myself. Thank goodness for Homer, poetry, and tales of ancient Greek heroes and monsters!

The digital difference is making a difference.

While I know that most if not all educators have read aloud as part of their reading to learn programs, I believe that the digital age has given all children the means to have that happen, through audiobooks, without the need of a teacher, or adult, present. Students reading the words and listening to stories, and complete books with pictures are possible today. You can, but don’t need to beg someone to take you to the library—where there is one. All the bits and pieces of how to read, as well as those things to read, can be in the hands of a child, today.

The reading expert educator is still the driving force, but a lot of reading can happen through technology, software, apps, and online resources without an adult. Touch screens make it possible for even the youngest to do it, too. And, this is incredible, but the true thing about kids and technology, they know how to get to the things they like, want, and need—even if the adults around them have no technologically digital clue.

Learning to read takes a winning combination.

I think we forget what it takes to read and write. Again, that writing bit is something for another day, but separating the two is impossible. To read without writing is doing only part of the job. Any first-grade teacher can tell you that, and any adult, who believes he/she can’t write knows what it’s like to miss that written part of reading.

I often think it funny, that someone, who didn’t quite get reading at the start, loves teaching it so much. Part of it is that every student is a new challenge, and the stakes are so incredibly high. In this digital age, the challenge is no different, and the stakes may even be higher. With so much more demand on students, and educators as well, we need to do whatever it takes to gift each child—and every adult—READING.

The team combination of good, creative, and knowledgeable educators, who use and know digital tools with students, and parents, who support those skills at home, and school leaders doing the same at school—make for a winning reading and learning combination.

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