Our Child Study meetings run long during the first weeks of preschool as we reacquaint ourselves with our returning students and get to know our new ones. One thing stood out right away this year: we have a bunch of fluent readers.
Wonderfully average children learn to read between the ages of four and nine; most gifted children learn to read between the ages of two and seven. While some gifted preschoolers are fluent readers, about half of all children who enter gifted programs do not begin reading until after they start kindergarten.
Learning to read is not a race.
Children walk in the door at Bellevue Discovery at a variety of reading levels, so we ask parents to complete a Family Reading Assessment before preschool begins to give our teachers a jumpstart with each child. Before we started using a rubric, parents sometimes told us their children could read – but we discovered those words meant something different if a family (or previous preschool) relied on phonics to teach reading.
Phonics is breaking words up into letters and sounding out the letters. At Bellevue Discovery we refer to this as “letter calling.” Every year we have children enter our program who “read” like this:
“Buh-a-tuh … buh-a-tuh” [looking anxiously at the listening adult, then back at the letters] “Buh-a-tuh” [faster and faster, trying to figure it out, and eventually …] “Bat?” [looking to the adult for confirmation, then grinning big with pride and relief]
Phonics – decoding the letters and phonemes on a page and translating them into sounds – is important. Phonics is not reading.
Phonics is to reading as checking your rear view mirror is to driving: it can give you some important information but it doesn’t help the car move forward.
Reading is creating meaning from text. Among many processes it includes decoding the letters on the page – although not necessarily all of the letters.
Raed wtih yuor clihd. Raed trhuogh the day. Raed wtih epxerisson. Keep bkoos in erevy room of yuor hmoe.
(A translation is at the end of this post, but I doubt you need it.)
It turns out the first and last letters in a word are the most essential; you can switch the order of some of the other letters without affecting your ability to read the word. You are able to read the word because your brain seeks meaning. And that’s good news because only about half of English words have purely phonetic spelling.
Children don’t learn to read by learning the sounds that go with each letter. It is absolutely true that if you have a reasonably compliant three year old (and if you do, I’m jealous), you can teach the child to identify letters and memorize one sound for each letter. It is also true that children who are taught to read primarily with phonics take longer to become fluent readers: they do not read for meaning, they view reading as a painstaking puzzle to solve, and they must read out loud – which slows down their reading and makes comprehension difficult.
These are the children who sit silently and hunched over during their first reading check-in times at our preschool, and whose parents say, “I know she can read, but she refuses to.” Our teachers turn those reading check-ins into story times – bringing back the joy of reading before asking for the child’s participation.
The “phonics first” belief system has a big foothold in American education (with book and software publishers raking in the bucks) so I understand parents’ confusion about teaching reading. We want our children to be good readers: won’t teaching the sub-skills of reading give our kids a head start?
Lenny Sanchez, who teaches reading methodology at Indiana University, contends,
“There’s a misconception that children learn to read and then read to learn … Reading is always about making meaning.”
Parents of the fluent readers we see at Bellevue Discovery say things like, “We never taught him how to read – he just started reading.” Of course, those families read many, many stories to their young children before they “magically” begin to read. The point is, early fluent readers don’t learn to read by being taught to sound out words. As Mem Fox, Australian literacy specialist and author of Reading Magic, writes,
“Fluent readers use phonics only after we have learnt to read, when we meet difficult, multi-syllabic words that we can’t make sense of by the usual logical means.”
It is common for young gifted readers to read fluently before they know their letter-sounds, or even all their letters. I remember tiny Kiddo looking up from reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to tell me,
“Mama, you know what I learned in kindergarten today? TH spells thhhhhhhh!”
I am not anti-phonics; I use phonics every day, as do you. We frequently talk about phonics at preschool while reading favorite stories or writing down our children’s words. I just wish the effort parents and early childhood teachers put into having young children memorize letter sounds went instead into more cuddle-time reading: joyful shared reading of favorite books, accompanied by talking and laughing together about the words, pictures and ideas.
Read with your child. Read through the day. Read with expression. Keep books in every room of your home.