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Whole Reading

by Margaret Phinney

I rode downtown the other day with a friend and her three children, aged 2, 4, and 6. As we passed a gas station, the following exchange took place among the children:

Robert, the youngest, pointing to the lit-up Sunoco sign, yelled, "Gas! Gas!"

Johanna, the middle child, said, questioning, "That says, 'Gulf station,' doesn't it?"

"No, that's not 'Gulf,' " commented first-grader Elizabeth. "It's... it's... what's that called, now? It's...'Sun-oco.' That's where Mrs. Berman gets her gas when she takes us to Brownies. See, it's too long to be 'Gulf,' and It starts with S. And it has 'sun' in it."

As a reading consultant and a first grade teacher, I thrill at this sort of interchange, for here are three more readers taking on literacy three more young people who have discovered that the rich world of print in which they live makes connections with their daily lives.

"Three readers?" you ask. "What do you mean, 'three'? Only one of those children read that sign!"

To me, all three children read the sign. Robert was reading Just as truly as a one year old is speaking when she says "Muh! Muh!" as she reaches for her mother. He was associating meaning with print, and the symbolic shape and colors of the sign that surround the print. He was attempting to express that meaning.

Johanna was reading with the same degree of accuracy that she uses in speech when she says, "I goed with Daddy to the store." Her message was clear, but not yet in perfect standard form. She knew that the sign was more specific than just "gas," that it was a particular brand of gas, but she still lacks enough experience with names of stations and with the details of print to be able to precisely identify it.

Elizabeth, the most mature reader, was able to use her memory and background knowledge her trips with Mrs. Berman to help her identify the sign. In addition, she has developed an awareness that letter-sound relationships and word length can be used as clues, and she knows enough sight words to recognize "sun." These two pieces of understanding help her to confirm the accuracy of her reading.

Do we, as parents, consider that our children are not talking when their attempts to communicate with us are as imperfect as Robert's and Johanna's readings? No, indeed! We get very excited when they try to imitate us. We give them a great deal of attention for such efforts. We encourage them and model more language for them to try out! We even imitate their amusing "misses." But we certainly do not say, "When will Johnny ever learn to speak!?" It would never occur to us that something so basically human as speech would not be learned by our children, unless they had a severe physiological impairment affecting speech development.

Why, then, do we treat reading as such an all-or-nothing accomplishment? Reading and writing are language processes just as much as listening and speaking are. Why do we feel that children's attempts to use and interpret print must be perfect from the first try? It is simply not correct to have such expectations. Yet, most school reading programs do require mastery of one aspect of reading before children are allowed to move on. The back-to-basics and mastery learning movements are even more rigid in this regard than previous programs have been. Almost none of them are geared to the way children naturally learn language.

Many teachers are now learning that reading can be as natural a process as learning to walk and to speak. They have discovered that if children are placed in an environment as rich with print as a home is rich with speech, as supportive of attempts to read and write as the home is supportive of attempts to walk, explore, and communicate, they will learn to read. They will read with the same joy and confidence that they express when they babble, and run, and laugh, and play. And they do not need sequenced readers with controlled vocabulary and workbooks and hundreds of dittoed worksheets to do it. All they need are the following:

  1. Books, real books, straight out of bookstores and libraries,
  2. Someone to read to them, to read with them, without pressure or intimidation; someone to model reading and writing for them; and someone to answer their questions,
  3. A risk-free environment in which to practice, and
  4. Time.

Research shows that children who learn to read before they go to school have these enriched, supportive conditions in their homes. The trick is to bring this environment into the classroom.

I am what is known as a "whole language teacher." This means that I teach reading from whole to part. I do not start with letters and letter-sounds; l start with whole stories, poems, chants, and songs, which I gather from the rich sources of literature available In bookstores and libraries. (We live in a golden age, as far as children's books are concerned there is no shortage of good material for teaching reading.)

I choose material that is lively, of interest to children at their grade level, and predictable. By predictable, I mean that it has elements that make it easy to remember: rhyme; rhythm; a tune; a chorus or repeated lines; or a story structure that repeats, such as the sequences in The Three Little Pigs or The Gingerbread Man.

l present this material to my students in enlarged-print form so that everyone can see the print at once. This tends to duplicate the bed-time story situation that is so natural in the home, but too difficult in a classroom because a teacher's lap is simply not big enough for 25 children.

I highlight rhyming words, repeated endings or beginning letters, some punctuation, and other devils by printing them in a contrasting color. This invites children to take note of patterns and important cues that can guide them as they gradually focus more and more on the details of print. Sometimes I make drawings as clues to word identification.

Because I love the literature myself, I read it with enthusiasm, and I invite participation by the children to the extent that they are able to join in. The more times we read a piece, the more children chime in.

Like learning to speak, reading is a gradual process of moving from general to more accurate expression of meaning. The children learn dozens of pieces of literature each month. Through daily reading and discussion of the details that they recognize, they begin to acquire sight words and strategies for using print. They employ these strategies during daily practice times, when they read their favorite pieces to themselves or with friends. Words, meaningful phrases, and grammar and phonics patterns that are recognized in one situation are transferred more and more often to other material.

Another advantage to natural reading is that children learn self-regulation and independence. They are free to reject material that is too hard and to reread material that they have been able to work out on their own. They learn to become judges of what they can and cannot handle; of when they are ready (or more challenge and when they need to remain with familiar material in order to consolidate what they know.

Writing practice also plays a vital role in learning to read. The two activities are interdependent: the development of one feeds the growth of the other. I have a daily "Writing Workshop," during which children choose their own topics and... they write. They share their efforts with each other and help one another with ideas, with ways to express these ideas, and with "invented spelling." Since they have had no formal training in spelling at this age, invented spelling is their personal writing tool. When they want to "publish" something, they get the standard spelling from the teacher. In thinking about how words sound and look, they focus on print details. This focus transfers to their reading, and back again to their writing.

The long and the short of it is that by January, most of my grade one children are addicted to reading. They learn to read by practicing reading, just as they learned to speak by practicing speech.

You Can Help Your Child At Home

Natural reading is no more magical than natural speaking. Just as children learn to talk at different rates and times, so are children widely individualistic in learning to read. Your child will probably not read, in the sense that we normally think of reading, before going to school most children don't but they will break into reading quickly and seemingly effortlessly if you provide a literacy-oriented environment throughout the preschool years. Here are some tips:

Begin early. Just as it is vital that children hear speech from the time they are born, so it is true that you cannot start reading to your child too early. "Book language" is different from oral language. It has a vocabulary, rhythm, and flow that speech does not possess. When children are exposed to this "other language" at an early age, it becomes a part of them. if it is associated with being held and rocked and loved, it later becomes a source of comfort and security in and of itself. Most importantly, reading to infants and very young children helps them learn to listen and attend for long periods of time. Ability to concentrate and pay attention are major factors in later school success.

Choose a variety of stories, poems, rhymes, and songs. From about age four, keep a chapter book going at all times. For the between-times naps, doctor's offices, before supper, midmorning choose shorter, predictable materials: nursery rhymes, jingles, folk and fairy tales, and the wealth of picture books found in any public library. Reread favorites over and over again. This can become tedious for you unless you keep in mind that children do not ask for repeats unless they are in some way benefiting from hearing a story again. Children do not seek boredom! You can spruce up the reading by using different tones of voice or by encouraging the child's participation by stopping before the end of a line and inviting the child to fill In the last word or two.

Encourage memorization of rhymes, songs, and predictable stories. Memory of material provides the base from which a focus on print is later built. If your child tells you that he or she can read a story, but is clearly reciting It from memory, do not contradict. Your child is demonstrating his or her understanding of many reading-like behaviors, such as turning the page, observing picture clues, and using "book language." At this point, children are simply at an early reading stage, like the early talker who gets across the message in less-than-perfect standard English.

Answer your child's questions about words, letters, pictures, signs, and the world in general. Be straightforward, honest, and matter-of-fact. Do not quiz your child about aspects of print.

Regularly, but not excessively, comment on interesting features of print when you read aloud. For example, if there is a sign in a picture, point to it and say, "Look, that sign says, 'St. Ives.' And look, there's where it says, 'St. Ives' in the poem," or, "Look at that word 'yellow.' It has two l's right in the middle." If your child is ready to tune in to print, the next time he or she may point out these words or features independently. If not, don't worry, just keep going. Remember, as with learning to speak, you cannot force development.

Show that you value reading by letting your children see you read frequently and hear you talking about things you have read. Have family reading times. Replace TV viewing with reading as much as possible. Establish a library-visiting routine and make sure you check out books for yourself.

Above all, do not try to teach phonics principles or rules. These are very abstract and often confusing. With so many exceptions to these rules, especially among the most common words in the language, many children can quickly become frustrated by trying to apply them before understanding the strategies involved. In my classroom, I do not expose children to phonics generalizations until they are already reading.

Use natural common sense. Remember, your children learned to speak successfully without formal instruction. All you did was model, encourage, and remain sensitive. Keep it up!

Margaret Phinney is a certified independent reading consultant.

This article was first published in the Winter 1987 issue of Mothering, and in the book Schooling at Home: Parents, Kids, and Learning, 1990, John Muir Publications, PO Box 613, Santa Fe, NM 87504. It is reprinted here with permission from the author and the editors. is supported by:
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