There’s a quiet, under-the-surface battle going on in the education world right now. The way that your Kindergarten, Grade 1, Grade 2 or Grade 3ish child is being taught to read and spell is a hot topic for many schools.
On one side of the “battle” are schools that predominantly use leveled readers as a framework for reading instruction and growth – children practise reading increasingly complex texts that feature more words, more pages and more sophisticated plots.
On the other side are those pushing forward a “new” approach often labeled as the “science of reading.” This approach is grounded in phonics instruction, where children are sequentially taught increasingly complex sounds and then apply that learning to texts that feature mostly the sounds that they’ve learned. For example, if a child is learning the /sh/ sound found in “fish”, a book they’re reading would contain many similar words, such as shop, ship, dish, wash, etc. Both make sense, right? Unfortunately not. While a phonics-only approach can be problematic, any reading program without any phonics instruction leaves many essential skills to be learned by chance…and that’s just not good education.
The Dangers of Leveled Reading
While many children learn to read “just fine” using leveled readers, there are many potential bad habits that can come from reading these books:
- At best, children learn a wide range of words that are frequently found in the books they read in younger grades. They have strong memories and build up a solid vocabulary quickly. In Grade 3 and beyond, when it becomes impossible for memory to sustain vocabulary to cover all subject areas, reading life becomes difficult as the fundamental reading skills aren’t solidified.
- Similarly, children learn to guess while reading as opposed to efficiently decoding (turning letters to sounds to words). If your child is currently a part of or has come from a leveled reading school, you might see them look at the first letter of a word, glance up at the pictures, and then guess at the rest of the word.
- Spelling never really develops. Phonetic reading is just one side of the literacy coin; turning sounds into words is equally as important, and explains why spelling has “gone out the window” if you ask many parents in the world of technology. It’s not the computers (or tablets, chromebooks or phones). It’s an absence of thorough teaching.
Please keep in mind that what is described above is a very, very simple discussion of a rather complex educational overhaul that is taking place in many schools. Most importantly, you’re likely wondering what it means for your child.
Questions for your child’s teacher
If your child is bringing home leveled books, or you’re simply unsure as to what reading/spelling sequence or program your child’s teacher is using, start a conversation with them. Understanding what is being worked on in class will be a tremendous help to the reading you do with your child at home (don’t worry – we’ll get to this, too). Questions you might ask:
- What kind of phonics sequence is being taught in class and what specific skills is my child being taught right now?
- Are there any specific phonics skills (maybe two-letter sounds or multisyllable words) that they are struggling with and might need more practice with?
- What is your child’s teacher’s approach to sight words, or high frequency words, or heart words or red words? There are tons of programs here so it’s good to know which one (if any) your child’s teacher uses.
- Is spelling taught explicitly or is it part of the overall writing program?
Don’t forget – dialogue between home and school is paramount to the success of your child, but nobody wants a backseat driver when it comes to how they go about their job. The teacher might be learning about new approaches, or the plan for additional professional development might be coming down the road…so come at these questions and conversations in a collaborative way.
How you can help
Depending on the answers you’re getting from school, your role might vary drastically:
If your child’s program has a strong phonics foundation, support your child with the development of fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. The books they are sent home will likely contain skills that they’ve learned already, so the focus can be on applying those skills in a seamless way. Take turns reading each page, or read every other page, so your child can hear a strong model of accurate and fluid reading. Alternatively, encourage your child to reread a text twice or even three times. With each reread, have them focus on something different: the punctuation being used, a word they can read but they don’t understand, or what’s happening in the story.
If your child’s program is missing a strong phonics component, support your child with the development of strong decoding and encoding skills. This can be a bit trickier, but there are great resources out there! Sounds-Write, authors of a fantastic phonics program, has created a free online course for parents to learn exactly these types of teaching strategies. It is well worth the time (that you probably don’t have much of). There are also great digital phonics games that can support this kind of learning as well: ABCmouse or Starfall are two of the most popular.
This likely feels like a lot. And that’s okay…because it is. Teachers all over are going through this transformation process and learning (or relearning!) the best way to support your child with their reading journey. The MOST important thing that you can do for your child when it comes to reading is to instill a love for reading. Regardless of how something is taught, if your child loves to read, their own learning will be greatly supported by their desire to read more. Read together as much as possible, set up a family reading day/night/hour, but make it a priority in your home.
If you’re still not sure where to go, reach out and ask. Even if your child isn’t a future Lamplighter, we’re always happy to help!