Learning to Read to Read to Learn. Myth or Reality?

Learning to Read to Read to Learn. Sounds catchy, doesn’t it. Anyone involved in education, including most parents, are familiar with this term and concept. But is it reality or myth? The fundamental premise for Learning to Read in order to Read to Learn is that “Learning to Read” occurs during the early years of a child’s education–typically kindergarten through 3rd grade–and consists primarily of decoding and memorizing basic words.

The focus is phonemic awareness and phonics. Children learn that letters make sounds, and how to mesh those sounds together so d-o-g becomes “dog”. They continue progressing through this stage until they achieve “fluency”, at which point they’re ready to tackle increasingly difficult texts and begin “Reading to Learn”.

The actual “Reading to Learn” part of the equation begins around fourth grade, where the focus is on reading for information and comprehension. This is where it gets a little bit tricky. Again, the premise is that before a child can gain comprehension of what they’re reading, they have to be somewhat proficient readers.

This concept, and way of thinking, continues to influence reading instruction and learning systems in classrooms throughout the world. But should reading for information and comprehension wait until the 4th grade? Do children make the transition from “Learning to Read” to “Reading to Learn” so easily? New studies say, “probably not”.

Research now shows that “Learning to Read” and “Reading to Learn” should occur (1) simultaneously and (2) continually throughout a child’s elementary and secondary years of education. Reading for information and comprehension should start as soon as a child begins to read–or even as early as a parent starts reading to their toddler.

Research also indicates that while the reading expectation for children changes around grade 4, where students are now expected to apply their reading skills, many kids still need more practice developing their fundamental reading skills.

It is a myth, and mistake, to think children don’t need additional learning to read instruction beyond the third grade–especially within content areas such as mathematics, science, poetry, and history.

Reading comprehension, which has been reserved for grades 4–8, and which early reading instruction has traditionally failed to address, is now emerging as a critical element of learning to read during early childhood, augmenting the more narrow focus on phonemic awareness and phonics.

Fundamental decoding and sight-word skills, supposedly developed during grades K–3, should continue to be emphasized and taught as students confront more challenging information, text, and literature associated with new content areas and academic disciplines.

Many educators also fail to recognize, or appreciate, that reading comprehension, and reading with understanding, is also a function of background knowledge, vocabulary and experience.

A 4th grader with good fundamental reading skills in the areas of decoding and phonics may still struggle to achieve comprehension when confronted with diverse contexts without a strong knowledge base. For example, in order to understand a story about the game of cricket, you need to have a little bit of experience with sports.

Children that are “good readers” typically possess fundamental reading skills AND have a little bit of knowledge about different things. It really doesn’t take many missing bits of background knowledge or vocabulary for a child to not comprehend a passage.

Notwithstanding strong evidence debunking the Learning to Read to Read to Learn system, and that supports newer and more effective reading instruction and practices, many teachers still continue to implement a more “traditional” approach based on the antiquated “K–3 and grades 4–8” sequential reading instruction. This is particularly evident in middle schools and high schools.

A report published by the ACT, Inc. (www.act.org), a national assessment testing organization for college entry and admission, states that just over half of high school students have the ability to meet the demands of college-level reading and only 51% of ACT tested high school graduates met ACT’s College Readiness Benchmark for Reading–as evidenced by poor testing results on the “Reading Comprehension” section of the ACT exam. So if reading comprehension is so critical to students’ future success, why don’t more middle and high-school teachers focus on improving reading skills?

One of the biggest reasons is time. Where teachers are required to cover large amounts of material in a relatively short amount of time it can be difficult to change the focus to improving reading strategies.

Keys to Learning to Read–and Read with Understanding

There’s no lack of evidence that learning to read at an early age, and read with understanding, positions kids for long-term academic and career success. The same evidence also suggests that kids who don’t acquire reading fluency and comprehension skills early in life struggle throughout school–and later on.

Statistics show that a student in 1st grade who struggles with reading will have a 90% chance of struggling when they’re in 4th grade, and a 3rd grader struggling with reading has only a 25% chance of catching up by the time he or she reaches high school. Hence, every possible effort should be made to (1) employ effective reading instruction and (2) continue to do so throughout a student’s academic career.

The following are proven tips, strategies and guidelines for sound reading instruction that will help turn any student–young or old–into a stronger reader, who not only reads with fluency, but understanding.

Kindergarten–3rd Grade:

As one of the foundational building blocks of future academic success, reading should be the strongest thrust of educational accountability and instruction from kindergarten through 3rd grade.

As many children as possible should leave 3rd grade reading with fluency and comprehension. The following tips and strategies will help create students prepared to succeed as they progress through grades 4–8, and beyond.

  • Background knowledge plays a large role in reading comprehension. Incorporate activities and instruction that build childrens’ knowledge base. Children without “general knowledge” struggle with comprehension even if skilled readers.
  • Facilitate reading by teaching children narrative and expository text structure. Students, young or old, must be familiar with text structures to become successful readers. This helps readers approach reading with a plan.
  • Help children identify the reason for reading. Setting a purpose helps students activate prior knowledge and utilize text structure. Setting a purpose also can collect information, perform a specific task, or nothing more than entertain.
  • Help students build “text” connections when they read. Making personal Text-to-Self Connections, Text-to-Text Connections and Text-to-World Connections will help students better understand and connect with what they read.
  • Help students make and verify predictions as they read. A reader that makes predictions about what he or she reads, focuses on the text at hand and is continually thinking ahead, revising, refining, and verifying his predictions.
  • Teaching students how to develop story maps and work with story structure will improve reading comprehension. Help students discuss and summarize the setting, characters, plot, outcomes and any other information they learned about the story structure.
  • Inference is another strategy that helps improve reading comprehension. Teaching students how to understand when information in a passage or text is implied, but not directly stated, improves their ability to make inferences, draw sound conclusions and more fully comprehend and enjoy reading.
  • Use illustrations and observation to help students better visualize what’s happening. As students visualize what’s taking place they’re more focused, they connect with the story or passage, and comprehension increases.
  • Predicting, questioning, retelling, and self-monitoring are all strategies that will help students improve fluency, understanding and comprehension as they read. Predicting is a pre-reading strategy that forces students to think ahead and anticipate. Questioning turns students into critical readers and spurs them to read more. Retelling helps students focus on what they’re reading and forces them to understand what they’re reading in order to retell their story. Teaching students self-monitoring techniques and strategies will help them check their understanding and improve comprehension.
  • Teaching students language patterns and vocabulary will help them better comprehend the text. Recognizing critical language patterns and having a sound understanding of vocabulary will greatly enhance reading comprehension in young readers.
  • Teach students how to use pictures, syntax and meaning to solve word problems. The draw-a-picture problem-solving technique, where students make a visual representation of the problem, is one of the most effective ways children can gain comprehension of complex text. Complex sentence structure, common in word problems, is one of the biggest impediments to solving word problems. Consequently, understanding syntax is imperative to a child’s ability to solve word problems. Teach students how to break difficult sentences into shorter, more comprehensible sentences. Finally, teach students to read for meaning.
  • For children to become fluent, independent readers they need to read on their own each day. A reasonable time is from 10 to 20 minutes depending on their age and the text.

4th–8th Grade:

Foundational reading instruction should continue from 4th through 8th grade with additional focus on reading comprehension within diverse content areas and disciplines.

The following tips and strategies will help develop readers who are prepared to succeed in high school, college and beyond.

  • Help students learn word parts, including roots, stems, prefixes, and suffixes. Teaching students how word parts fit together to form multi-syllabic words is one of the most effective methods for helping middle and high-school age students build their vocabulary. Helping students learn how to decode multisyllabic words and increase their vocabulary improves reading comprehension.
  • Setting a purpose for reading is just as important for middle school and high school students as it is for elementary students. It helps students activate prior knowledge and utilize text structures. It also motivates students to focus on the meaning of the text. Setting a purpose for reading can be particularly beneficial for high school students who struggle with textbook reading.
  • Knowledge speeds and strengthens reading comprehension. Any methods that teachers can use to build background and activate prior knowledge will help improve students their reading fluency and comprehension. Background knowledge, or prior knowledge, is so essential to reading comprehension because it helps students make sense of new information.
  • Make sure students understand how the structure and parts of textbooks work. Being able to navigate a textbook effectively enhances students’ reading comprehension and ability to understand material found in textbooks and content areas.
  • Teach students proven reading comprehension strategies including predicting, questioning, retelling, synthesizing, summarizing, self-monitoring, rereading, close reading, and thinking aloud. By the time students get to high school many teachers mistakenly believe that students have a good grasp on these reading comprehension strategies. Research says otherwise.
  • Introduce students to the different types of literary genres including epic, drama, tragedy, comedy, biography, mystery, nonfiction, fiction, etc and teach them the structure and elements of each.
  • Explore text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections with students. Once students understand how to relate what they are reading to other books, to the world they live in, and to their own life, they’ll start making personal connections to what they read that enhances comprehension and understanding.
  • Even though middle school and high school students have been reading independently since elementary school, focused daily independent reading will help enhance reading comprehension.

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