Teachers and parents credit wildly popular youth books like the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series for encouraging young people to read. Writing in Education Week, teacher Jennifer Morrison noted that the Twilight series contains references to literature such as Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights. “For many of my students, the Twilight series has opened doors into much more difficult, classic texts.”
Before students can read such novels, they must develop literacy skills such as reading fluency and comprehension. The foundation of language learning begins in infancy. Early learning is therefore critical for school success.
The first 2,000 days
The Early Learning Coalition of Orange County notes that “90 percent of a child’s brain is developed before the age of five.” Children have only 2,000 days from birth until they start kindergarten, so parents need to make good use of that time to prepare their children for literacy.
You can’t teach a baby to read, but you can teach language. Narrating the acts of everyday life helps infants associate words with concepts. During bath time, for example, talk about hot and cold, wet and dry, dirty and clean. Children learn language by association and example. By talking to your child continually, you set an example for them to imitate. Your tone conveys meaning, and comprehension will come with time and repetition.
In the first few years of life, you can develop your child’s language skills by singing songs and reading books aloud. Describe the number, shape, and color of things your child sees, and ask questions that don’t have yes or no answers.
Although children acquire oral language by listening, they can only learn to read through direct instruction. Reading and writing require learning the complex written code of letters that corresponds to spoken language. The preliteracy skills
needed to move from oral language to written language include the following:
• Alphabet: recognizing and writing characters
• Phonics: associating letters with sounds
• Vocabulary: understanding and speaking words
• Grammar: compiling words into phrases and sentences.
M Waddell, a teacher at Small Blessings Childcare, an Orlando preschool, says reading is not just about words. “It is about everything that prepares a child to understand the world that they are reading about and the excitement that words bring to them.”
Shared reading is ideal for encouraging preliteracy skills. In addition, provide paper, crayons, pencils, and a space for writing. Use magnetic letters—on an old cookie sheet if not the refrigerator door—to practice spelling. Take your child to the library and bookstore, and be willing to read your child’s favorite stories repeatedly.
Setting an example for your children by reading your own books and magazines is as important as reading their books to them. Likewise, let them see you writing.
“Literacy starts from the first words a child hears, the songs, stories, conversations that they overhear and participate in,” Waddell says. “When children are familiar with books, newspapers, and magazines, either by watching home members use them or by using these items themselves, they know that reading, knowledge, and learning are important, and they want to be a part of that experience.”
As your child progresses through elementary school, they will move from reading picture books to reading longer works with fewer illustrations, and eventually to novels. Early on, necessary skills will be sounding out words and understanding how words form sentences.
Later, students need to understand how sentences and paragraphs work together to express concepts. They’ll learn how to look up unfamiliar words in an age-appropriate dictionary and how to express their own concepts in writing.
Continue reading with your child. To develop vocabulary, choose books that have a few unfamiliar words. Scholastic, a book publisher, recommends choosing books that introduce no more than five new words within the back cover and first page. By age eight or nine, children should be able to sound out unfamiliar words. When they do, ask what they think the word means. Ask questions about the story to gauge their comprehension.
Show children how literacy applies in everyday life. At the grocery store, demonstrate how you read labels to choose the healthiest food options. At home, develop writing skills by asking children to write letters to grandparents or captions for family photos.
Third grade is crucial
Florida statues require that students scoring 1, the lowest level, on the FCAT 2.0 Reading Exam in the third grade must be held back. Third grade was chosen as the cutoff because beyond that, schoolwork increasingly relies on textbooks, magazine articles, and Internet research. Literacy is most significantly affected by habits formed by age nine, so if those habits are lacking, remedial action must be taken before the student can progress. The Florida Department of Education therefore requires third-grade students to do the following:
• Determine the meaning of words
• Apply reading comprehension skills
• Apply literary analysis skills
• Locate, interpret and organize information
Students may not be promoted to fourth grade until they reach minimum proficiency. If this occurs in the middle of the following school year, the child is eligible for midyear promotion. If after completing one remedial year the child cannot pass the test, an intensive acceleration class will try to advance the student’s reading level by two grade levels in one school year. Exemptions may be available for students with learning disabilities or those for whom English is a second language. More information about the testing and exemption policies can be found in the state’s report on third-grade literacy, “Read To Learn,” which can be downloaded from bit.ly/FDOEreadtolearn.
Middle and High School
At the elementary level, reading skills primarily focus on comprehension within single texts. But in the middle and high school years, students must progress to synthesis—reading and analyzing several texts on a subject and then demonstrating their comprehension by writing reports.
Educators recommend modeling the kind of analysis these tasks require. Read news articles, for example, and discuss them with your child. Draw conclusions and explain how you did so. Then ask for your child’s opinion. Read the novels they’re reading and compare opinions about what aspects of the story were most interesting and why. During shared reading, ask your child to read to you, so you can evaluate fluency.
Like other daunting tasks, report writing can simplified by breaking it into parts. Once the research is done, have the student make a list of the facts that need to be included. Then have your child write each fact on a three-by-five card or sheet of paper, or in a note in an app like Evernote. Then organize the pieces into the order that makes the most sense, and compile the report. Wait until that draft is done to check grammar and spelling.
Donalyn Miller, in The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, argues that students should spend less time talking about reading and more time just reading. C. Kevin Thompson, assistant principal at Eustis Middle School—and also a novelist—agrees with Miller on that point. He says kids who claim to dislike reading just haven’t found the right book yet. Choosing books that engage their interests helps kids develop a love for learning. Consider what your child’s favorite movies are, and find novels in similar genres. Often subscriptions to magazines covering topics a kid cares about can engage him when novels can’t.