Have Fun, Start Now

Have fun, start now are the guiding principles in Dan Willingham’s latest book, Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do.

Willingham focuses on three foundations of reading: decoding easily, comprehension, and motivation. These foundations are addressed by age groups, birth through preschool, kindergarten through second grade, and third grade and beyond. Willingham discusses what you might expect to be happening at school and what you can do at home. And, because it is Willingham, there are references to research, both what we already know and where further study could be helpful.

This book is aimed at helping you help your child to see the value and pleasure in reading for enjoyment or entertainment. Basically, kids who read have a self-concept of themselves as readers (“reading is one of the things that I do”) and Willingham offers suggestions for helping your child build that self-concept as well as positive encouragement (it’s never too late to start!).

Willingham also cautions about relying too much on your child’s school. From the Introduction:

If you want your child to value reading, schools can help, but you, the parent, have the greater influence and bear the greater responsibility. You can’t just talk about what a good idea reading is. Your child needs to observe that reading matters to you, that you live like a reader.

I found myself nodding along throughout much of this book, though there were two points at which I was stopped short. The first was at this passage, from Chapter Five:

I encourage you to be very cautious about providing reading instruction at home. There are studies showing that such teaching can help children learn to read, but in these studies, parents are trained in specific techniques by the researchers. If you’re not trained by researchers (or your child’s teacher), you’re either going to go with your gut instincts about how to teach (which is dicey) or you’ll choose one of the many products out there for parents to work on phonics with their kids. Many of these products are not sound in how they approach reading instruction, and most are terribly boring. (Emphasis in the original.)

I agree that many products (and advice) sold to parents may not be sound in how they approach reading instruction, but I am confident that that statement may too often be true with regard to materials (and advice) sold to schools as well. In other words, I’m less optimistic than Willingham that schools are mostly getting systematic phonics instruction right.

In addition, I think parents either trying to evaluate the quality of their child’s school’s reading instruction or listening to their child’s early efforts at decoding and offering effective corrective feedback may need to study up on systematic phonics instruction anyway, in which case, you’re most of the way to being prepared to teach reading to your own child (one-on-one). So while I might agree that there’s no reason to intervene if you are satisfied with your child’s reading instruction, I wouldn’t hesitate to intervene if I had concerns; just be careful who you take advice or purchase materials from.*

Case in point: here’s a portion of a literacy consultant’s blogpost, on the Iowa Reading Research Center website blog, highlighting a video, “Reading Solution: Don’t Give Me the Answer”, from the IRRC Family Resources page.

The video also shares that if a child is stuck on a word after a few tries, a parent can support the child by asking some questions. The parent in the video encourages the child to use the pictures in the book to see if the word makes sense. I decided to try this and it worked! Griffin stumbled on the word “tickets” in the sentence “Mom gets tickets.” I asked him to look at the mom and see what could be in her hand and to think about what they needed to get into the fair. Since he had figured out the first part “tic”, he was able to guess the rest of the word correctly. (Emphasis added.)

Let me suggest something different this parent could have said to her child instead. How about, “Griffin, each syllable in a word has a vowel sound. Let’s see if we can divide this word into syllables and try sounding it out again?” Having assisted Griffin in dividing “tickets” into two syllables (tick-ets), Griffin should have been able to sound out this word, not guess the word from the pictures (which, it should go without saying, won’t be a particularly good reading strategy in the long run).

The other passage that stopped me short was this one, from Chapter Six, following a discussion of the importance of broad general content knowledge:

In chapter 5, I encouraged you to count on your child’s teacher to get him reading, but when it comes to knowledge building, you can’t exhort the schools and hope for the best. This work will fall to you.

In this case, it wasn’t so much disagreement as discouragement about the general state of schools with regard to content knowledge that would cause Willingham to write this and what it means for local efforts to address the achievement gap. As we add more time to the elementary school day, I hope local school officials will take note that making time for building content knowledge (history, civics, science, art and more) is vital for supporting later reading comprehension (Chapter Six).

One other topic of particular interest to me is the role of electronic devices in reading and in schools. Willingham notes that it probably doesn’t matter if your child reads on an e-reader or not (Chapter Eight). However, in Chapter Eight, Willingham notes:

There is one qualification to that conclusion. If your child’s school is considering moving to electronic textbooks, be at least a little wary. Publishers are working to improve electronic textbooks, but with the current offerings, the research is pretty consistently negative.

Willingham discusses digital technology more extensively in Chapter Ten:

The consequence of long-term experience with digital technologies is not an inability to sustain attention. It’s impatience with boredom. It’s an expectation that I should always have something interesting to listen to, watch, or read and that creating an interesting experience should require little effort. . . . We’re not distractible. We just have a very low threshold for boredom.

But it’s not all bad news (e-readers can help make appealing reading material easily accessible) and Willingham offers a number of suggestions to encourage kids to choose to read.

All in all, a worthwhile and engaging read, and a book I’d like to see local teachers and school administrators find time to read.

*FWIW, I like the Montessori preschool writing to reading sequence of materials and activities. I also like Sound Steps to Reading (plus storybook) by Diane McGuinness.

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