Friday, February 27, 2009

Some thoughts on how to teach reading

How to teach reading has been the subject of discourse for years.  Books are written about it from every point of view.  And yet, grade school teachers year after year teach little children how to read using their own techniques they have learned over the years.  

I have great admiration for first and second grade teachers who do the grunt work of reading.  They unlock the code so that little children can make sense of those odd markings on a page.  I wish everyone could see a young child when they first read their whole complete sentence.  Their eyes light up, a smile to brighten the world comes across their face.  "I can read."

It really helps the teachers if parents would read to their children at home.  After dinner, sitting with your young one and picking out of book to read does more to motivate a child then just about anything we teachers can do.  While your young one hears you interpret those markings on the page into a story, part of their brain is saying, "I want to be able to do that."  No, first and second grade teachers really are the tops in my view.

When you get to the upper grades, most children can already read.  But some are still struggling with seeing the words and transforming them into sounds of reading aloud.  Of course there are those children who will say to Mom who is trying to get dinner, "Can I read to you?  And there isn't a parent alive that hasn't heard the same story over and over again.  To the young reader the story becomes a friend that they enjoy [reading].  But the upper grade teacher is charged with getting his/her class reading at full voice and knowing the meaning of the words.  And I can attest, words change in meaning over the years--take "cool" for instance.  To us old timers it means something less then warm.  To the young of our society it means something good.  So the struggle to educate our young goes on.

Our many high school English teachers do their share of teaching reading, this time to understand the nuances, the subtle meanings, the sarcasm of anger and the delicacy of joy from those same obscure letters of knowledge.  This is done at a time when young teenagers have the feeling they know it all.  I love high school English teachers....they must feel like salmon going upstream at times.

I was a fifth grade teacher who was charged with improving the children's reading skills.  They all knew how to read but some better then others.  The standard in those days was to have the children take out their reading books and each children would get to read a page or so until the teacher, me in this case, would say something like, "That's good, Charles.  Mary will you continue?"  

The problem however was enormous.  First some children read with such a quiet voice that no one in the room could hear them.  So I'd say, "Could you read louder, please?"  Perhaps it was a bit louder but in most cases, whoever was reading just kept mumbling away.  Boredom was the setting in the classroom.  Okay, so what to do?  My first step was to make each child stand up when they were to read.  This only produced a heads down, nose in the book and that quiet voice as they read their page or so.  Day dreaming by much of the rest of the class was the order of the day.  By the way, most of the kids had already read the story even though I said not to read ahead.  That was like putting hard candy on my desk and saying, don't take the candy.  Right!

So my next step was to have the students go to the front of the room.  Now this was very difficult for some students.  They did not want to be in front of the class.   "Do I hafta, Mr. Blackwell?"  I probably wasted more time getting kids to the front of the room then they did reading.  There was some improvement, not much, and most, if not all of the children kept their noses in the book and the back of the room could hardly hear some of those who were reading.

One day I was going through the school store room when I spotted my old podium that I used when I had taught band.  No one was using it at the time so I got a bunch of the kids to help me and we "repositioned" it in my room, up front in the classroom.  Now when it was time for someone to read, they had to go and stand on the podium.  Some of the kids thought that was cool but others thought I had invented "hell."  "Everyone can see me!"  And that was still the problem--they could be seen but not heard.  

It was the book that was getting in the way I surmised. So I purloined one of the good music stands from the Band Room and put it in front of the podium.  I then had the children put their books on the music stand and stand on the podium and read to the class.  By gosh, a number of the kids got better at their reading.  And more of the class started to pay attention to whoever was up at the podium.  

But still it was not smooth reading.  How could I improve their style?  I don't remember exactly how it came about but one day I said to the class I want you to look up at the class for the last three words of each sentence.  Okay?  Well, this was a new kettle of fish to fry.  And the class decided that this could be a good game--catching whoever was reading when they didn't look up the last three words.  Which meant......they also had to be reading along with whoever was reading up in front to know when they didn't look up at the right time.  Catching the other was a hot game.  Hands were flying in the air.  

But one of those strange happenings that happen in a class happen (I'm sorry Mrs. Jenson, I know you don't like that sentence)(Mrs. Jenson was my high school English teacher).  Many of the kids reading skills got better--really better--as good as me.  And the funny thing was when I read to the class after lunch they jumped all over me when I didn't look up at the end of each sentence.  The class really improved in their reading skills.  Some of the kids would look up for much of the sentence.  And a few could practically memorize the entire page.  Talk about kids feeling good about themselves.  And it still was a game--it was fun to read.  Even my poorest readers were improving.  Now here is a funny bit.  Several of the kids would ask me if they could stay in at recess and practice their reading.  They didn't practice at their desk, they wanted to use the podium and the music stand.  Their friends would sit in the front rows and make constructive comments.  

It is strange how little things can change how a child learns.  What I had was expository learning coupled with the performance mode--remember the nine functions of teaching/learning that I wrote about previously?  And then we added the speed bump of the last three words which worked on their phycho-motor skills--motor skills for the eye.  I think looking away from the printed page gave them confidence and confidence is what it is all about.  "Success breeds success."

At the end of the year my kids were reading about a year or more ahead of the other classes.  Although I was asked how I did it no other teachers asked for a podium for their classroom.

A number of years later I worked with a student teacher in a fourth grade classroom with this technique although we tweaked it a bit.  In this case we added a camcorder and monitor and the children could record their reading and then watch it.  Instant results and the same quick improvement in reading.  So if you're a parent and have a little one at home learning to read--set up your camcorder and let them read into it.  Keep track if you can on how much they improve.

Hmmmmmmm.  I wonder.  What if we put that on YouTube????

If you know how to read, don't forget to thank a teacher.  

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