Monday, February 27, 2012

Filling in the Blanks

It is sometimes hard to know how to help a child who is completely stuck on a word when reading. As I mentioned in a previous post, our go-to strategy seems to be "sounding it out." I would like us to challenge ourselves to find other ways to help children solve unknown words.

One of these ways might be to pretend unfamiliar words are blank spaces for students to fill in. In Debra Goodman's The Reading Detective Club, she gives an example story of the three little pigs in which several words are smudged and unreadable. In this book, a detective says he thinks he can figure out the missing words. The readers use context and background knowledge to fill in the blanks. Often, we will be able to think of several words that might fit in a single blank, but we can use our understanding of the rest of the story to choose one that fits best. Try this strategy with young readers by encouraging them to cover unknown words with a finger and to think about the possibilities. Then have them back up to the beginning of the sentence and try a possible word in the unknown word's place. In the end, we should be more concerned with students' meaning making and comprehension than their ability to read every single word perfectly.

Encouraging young readers to use various strategies to figure out difficult words themselves empowers them to read more and independently. When children know that they have options when they come to an unfamiliar word, they will be more likely to try to solve the word on their own. As always, our goal is to foster a lifelong love of reading. So support your young reading detectives as they solve these tricky cases.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Letting Go of Leveling

Leveled reading means assigning students to reading levels based on a general assessment. (Each level is represented by a letter or number.) In many elementary settings, students will read only books in their assigned level.
I would argue that this assignment of leveled books to young readers can be inauthentic, irrelevant, and boring. I recently spoke to a kindergartner's parents who said that their daughter was becoming increasingly uninterested in school and literacy homework because of the leveled reading taking place in her classroom.

Leveling seems like a simple, convenient way for teachers to organize a classroom or grade into reading groups. They can track students' reading abilities through basic assessments, and move them through the levels as they progress. But ... teaching and learning to read isn't simple or convenient all the time. Trying to force early readers into a pre-constructed organization means that we are narrowing children's options at a time when we should be allowing them to explore all kinds of literacy. Many children who are told they cannot or should not read books outside of a certain group will begin to believe it, and this is setting them up for future literacy failure.

As teachers and parents, we need to give children access to a variety of texts and literacy opportunities. Children need to experience books they can read independently which also stimulate their thinking. If using leveled readers is a requirement in your school, supplement children's reading materials with books that relate to children's personal interests. Make reading a meaningful experience, not simply an exercise in phonics.

So, let's try to let reading be a little complicated. Give children a voice in their reading choices now and will be much more likely to read for pleasure in the future.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Moving Beyond "Sounding it Out"

Chances are, if someone asks us how we learned to read, we say "I learned how to sound out words" or some variation of this. "Sound it out" is a go-to phrase used by parents and teachers to tell children how to attempt reading a word. But, do we believe that this is the best or only way to support children in their early reading?

Sounding out is not a foolproof method for figuring out unknown words, or for making sense of a chunk of text. Some people might say that sounding out words actually hinders, rather than helps, readers comprehend a text because many words cannot be "sounded out." Also, by focusing only on the individual parts and sounds of a word, the reader is not thinking about what the word means, or how it fits into the context of the whole story.

Children do need to have phonemic awareness, but there are other strategies that could be more helpful in understanding a text as a whole:
~ Use the visual information (pictures) surrounding the text to generate ideas about what an unknown word
might be.
~ Tell students to think about the context of the sentences
they have already read. See if there is a pattern in the words that might help them figure out the unknown word, or come up with possible words that fit into that part of the story.
~ Rather than sounding out an entire word, look at the first letter and think of a word within the context of the story that begins with that sound.
~ Continue to give students more strategies throughout the process of learning to read. Every child learns differently, so what works for some may not be the best strategy for others.

The conclusion here, it seems, is that the best strategy for early reading is to use a variety of strategies which work together to help young readers understand texts. Instead of focusing only on sounding out words, let's encourage children to solve words using multiple strategies.