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Learning to Read

Read Some Books!
July 16, 2013 By M. J. Maynard

Lately I have been looking at a lot of programs that are designed to teach children to read. There are certainly a lot of choices out there, traditional public and private schools and also for home schools. There is also a very wide spectrum of quality--some are excellent, some acceptable, and some that make you wonder what the publisher was thinking.

Most reading programs have some mix of emphasis on phonics principles and sight words. Many have teaching aids like workbooks, flash cards and reading games.  Most children will be able to learn important foundational skills with even mediocre materials. This is especially true when a good teacher is involved.

But, the most important component of learning to read may or may not be included in a packaged program. Yes, I'm talking about the books! To become proficient readers, children need a lot of practice with continuous text.  It's good to know things like letters, sounds and sight words in isolation, but those items also need to be put to use in the reading process. Young learners can start reading simple stories very early in their reading journey. They do not need to know every sound or word in a book, as long as the story gives plenty of support with picture and meaning clues.

Books for beginning readers are much easier when they are written in natural language. Unfortunately, some programs try so hard to instill phonics principles that their materials end up contrived and meaningless. I've actually seen sentences similar to this in practice books:  A fat cat can pat the mat in a vat. Imagine what it takes for an artist to come up with an illustration for that! And, how many first graders do you know who actually have the word "vat" in their vocabulary? In an attempt to teach sounds, this kind of writing makes the reading task much harder than it should be.

In contrast, consider a sentence like this:  Pat sat down by his black cat. This still has good practice with the short "a" sound, and it would be very meaningful when accompanied by a clear picture.

Good, readable books for beginners are becoming more abundant, and there could easily be some fine ones included in your reading program of choice. If not, you may have to go on a search for some quality supplemental materials. Whatever it takes, please make sure your child gets many opportunities to read with real books. You will both be pleased with the progress this brings.


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In early reading, discussion about a story activates comprehension.
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