|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
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
- Books, real books, straight out of bookstores and
- 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,
- A risk-free environment in which to practice, and
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
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
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
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
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!