So how exactly does a kid learn to read?
I’ve been teaching for 10.5 years, and I still struggle with that question. I do know this: it has to click. Once it clicks, a child reads with fluency, increasing comprehension, and joy (“I can read!”). The hard question: How does it click?
The best training I’ve gotten in teaching reading has been through Metro Schools. They have offered me so much professional development over the years on how to teach reading and even how to teach English Language Learners to read.
We focus on five components: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency.
(The difference between phonemic awareness and phonics is that phonemic awareness deals purely with sounds but not letters. Phonemic awareness includes initial/medial/final sounds, rhyming, sound substitution, discriminating between different sounds, hearing syllables, segmenting and blending sounds – but it does not include letter names or letters at all. Research shows that good phonemic awareness is a pre-cursor to good readers. Phonics deals with sounds and the letters or letter combinations that make those sounds.)
While teachers use a reading basal with their whole class, we also focus on giving kids books at their level. Every elementary school in Metro has a Book Room, which has sets of books (6 to set) that we use for small group reading instruction. The books are leveled (we use a numerical leveling system from Level 1 to 40 something – not sure the highest). These are not basals or Dick-and-Jane type books. They are trade books and picture books. Some are fiction, some are non-fiction. They have words with phonetic patterns and sight words that can’t be sounded out. In other words, they are authentic books. We do running records on the kids several times a year to determine their reading level, then we group the students according to similar levels and instruct small groups (3-6 kids) on their levels. While teachers are meeting with groups, the other students are doing literacy centers, or hands-on activities related to the 5 aforementioned components.
We do have benchmark reading levels for the beginning, middle, and end of each grade, but the beauty of it is that if a kid has not reached benchmark, he still gets to read a book on his level! Giving kids a book that they can read independently or with a just a little help is so empowering for the kids. They can experience success at every level of ability. And a kid is never going to read better if he is constantly exposed to reading material that is beyond his reach. Providing books that match the child’s ability allows the child to make progress rather than being stuck in frustration mode. Likewise, a child who is an advanced reader does not stagnate at one reading level or get stuck reading books that are too easy. He also is able to progress and improve because he has access to books at or a little above his level.
All this to say: Metro Schools get a bad rap. And I’ll admit there are some really rough schools in this city. However, I’ve had 2 different people from a neighboring, well-to-do county tell me that their children are not being challenged at their schools. I’m like, “Oh, do they have a book room? Do they do leveled guided reading groups?”
And the answer is, “No.”
Guess we’re doing something right!