Learning to Read

Learning how to read is based on a few cornerstones.

  1. Develop auditory skills. A student must be aware that words are made of individual sounds (phonemes). Before you teach children how to blend sounds, they must be able to hear the individual sounds in words. This means you teach “finger-spelling” before you teach blending. This is an oral drill. Make a list of ten words every day for the first two weeks of school: mat, cat, big, sun, Ted, fine, lake, etc. The teacher says mat. The students repeat mat and then break the word apart /m/, /a/, /t/, while holding up a finger for each sound. The teacher says fine. The students repeat fine and then break the word apart: /f/, /long i/, /n/, while holding up a finger for each sound. At first, this is difficult for many, because they are not used to breaking words apart into individual sounds. Throughout the second, third, and fourth months of first grade, once students have succeeded with three-letter blends, increase the difficulty to four- and five-letter blends (bent, drive, plant, etc.). Success in this auditory exercise lays the foundation for pointing to individual sounds in a word, saying them, and blending them together.
  2. Review. Learning how to blend and read words takes much more review than most beginning teachers realize. Consider how you learned to drive a vehicle; the intensity of focus it took and the incredible amount of practice it took until you could drive a car while carrying a conversation (multi-tasking). A child who can fluently sound out words and comprehend them is multi-tasking, which is a very high-level process. Teachers must drill the sounding out and blending process again and again until it becomes automatic. Whole class exercises build fluency. Sound out and blend word lists chorally. Model what it sounds like to break apart a word and blend it together, then repeat it faster several times.
  3. Review flashcards until competency is reached. Often teachers switch out words in their flashcard pack too soon. Students should be able to read the words on flashcards and phrase cards fluently before the cards are “put away.” This will likely mean having two flashcard sessions a day. Several shorter sessions are better than one session that lasts too long.
  4. Develop fluency before comprehension. The key in first grade is teaching students how to read fluently. Drill. Drill. Drill. Blend. Blend. Blend. Review. Review. Review. Any word lists or word boxes that students are asked to read individually to the teacher should be practiced chorally with the class at least two to five times before students read them individually. (These lists are provided daily in Christian Light’s Learning to Read curriculum.)
  5. Use pre-reading strategies for comprehension. Before starting a reading class, the teacher should introduce the main characters. Do students know if they are boys’ or girls’ names? Draw stick figures on the board to represent the characters and ages of the main characters. What is the setting—similar to what children see out the window or something vastly different? Students need a mental picture and framework out of which to read. Help students make predictions from the title or the picture in the story as to what might happen. When understanding the setting, characters, and possible outcome, students can read more competently. They may have made a wrong prediction which is okay, but at least they are thinking. They are not just reading in a void but are following a journey. Tossing a story to children and saying ‘read’ without prepping them is like tossing them into a pool and saying ‘swim.’
  6. Ask questions intermittently while reading, beginning in the primers. If students read a story about a wagon going downhill…a few questions such as What were they riding? Which direction are they going? Can you picture this? Would it be scary? Would it be fun? This continues to engage pupils and bring back the “wandering” and it builds comprehension.

Two key predictors of learning to read success are 1.) phonemic awareness and 2.) letter-sound fluency. If after several weeks, when a student has been drilled daily with others in phonemic awareness and letter-sound fluency but continues to struggle in these two areas, this may be an indicator of a learning disability that needs to be addressed with one-on-one tutoring, more strategic teaching, or tailored lessons.

Resources I’d recommend:

  1. Learning to Read from Christian Light is thorough, has a consistent review system built in with a variety of seatwork, and takes an incremental approach to the phonics program.
  2. Anna Zehr’s Teaching Reading Class at Summer Term at Faith Builders. We underestimate the complexity of the learning to read process and often poorly equip our young novice teachers.
  3. The Fluent Reader by Timothy Rasinski. You can listen to him speak online as well. He is a highly proficient and seasoned reading teacher.
  4. The sound slider from Christian Light. All first-grade teachers should use this tool daily.
  5. Victory Drill Book available from Christian Light or Christian Learning Resource. As soon as Learning to Read is finished we continue our daily word drills with one-minute timings from a page in Victory Drill working our way through. I’d be happy to explain more of this process.
  6. Training Sessions
    1. Each summer, Christian Light offers a week of training specifically geared to teaching the Learning to Read course.
    2. Faith Builders offers a first-grade learning-to-read track at Teacher’s Week in August.
  7. Find a seasoned first grade teacher in your local community and “sit at their feet” for a year, before diving in and teaching first grade cold turkey.
  8. Heggerty Phonemic Awareness (primary level-yellow book). This program is a twelve-minute a day program of breaking words apart, listening for rhyming words, putting syllables together; exercises that build reading fluency. This year, I’ve added it to my learning to read class and am delighted at the strength it is adding to our phonics program.

Image by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

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