Amy Basinski was a student teacher in Chicago when she witnessed a literacy miracle: Harry Potter helped her learning-disabled students improve their reading more than three grade levels in under two years.
The ten-year-olds had read the first of the Harry Potter books the previous year with the help of the book’s audio version.
When Amy started working with the students she quickly noticed their interest in Harry Potter. So they started the second one, even though it was outside the school’s curriculum and the students’ comprehensive capabilities.
“Even though the books were really hard reading, Harry Potter was what all the other kids were reading. We were taking the material and relating it back to them personally. That’s how information becomes relevant to a child; no longer is it abstract information on a page.”
The students’ devotion to the series paid off. In sixth grade, before they began reading Harry Potter, nearly all tested at least a grade below their expected reading level. After two years of popular material and listening to books on tape, more than half the class was up to grade level in reading ability. Success stories such as this beg the question: Is there a more effective way to teach reading? Experts say there is. Here are a few suggestions to help you develop a successful and wide-eyed reader:
Begin the process early
Nancy Singer, a kindergarten teacher with 24 years’ experience, found it’s never too early to help kids grasp the concept of reading.
“Even for kids who are 2 years old, reading aloud can help them understand that the funny marks on paper have meaning,”
Nancy says. “[This] is why we encourage people to read to their kids when they are very young.” She suggests teaching techniques could usefully include making Play-Doh letters, writing in sand, and using pipe cleaners to create words. With kids of 3 or 4, half the battle is getting them over their initial fear of reading on their own. When young readers get frustrated, remind them that everyone can read the pictures and take the time to decipher stories page by page.
“Make a commitment to read to them and have them read to you every day, that’s the best thing.”
Thanks to parents who have made this commitment, it’s now common for pre-reading, (the act of pretending to read but gaining interest in stories), to occur in preschool. Kindergarten teachers like Nancy aim to have their students doing early reading within a school year. To meet this goal, Nancy regularly connects reading and writing in the classroom. By giving her students the freedom to use inventive spelling in their stories when they’re stumped, she helps them develop their phonics skills, which in turn improves their reading abilities.
Read for meaning
Professor Lenny Sanchez teaches reading methods at Indiana University. He warns that reading is not only about decoding, or deciphering letters into fluid sounds to make words.
“There’s a misconception that children learn to read and then read to learn. Reading is always about making meaning.”
A good reader also reads fluently. To help children develop that skill, teachers must refrain from jumping in when kids skip a word or miss a sound. Lenny says actions like this will break a child’s flow and take the focus off understanding what they’re reading and place it on decoding, a skill they will grasp over time. Lenny says it’s important to ask children detailed questions while they read to help develop their comprehension skills. Reading always involves a purpose, he says, and pinpointing that purpose is often as simple as asking a child “What do you want to find out?”
“Kids who are forced to read in childhood often choose not to read once they are adult.”
By setting up the purpose ahead of time, the child is looking for the deeper meaning of the text throughout the entire story.
Choose the best possible text
As children become more comfortable with the reading process, Sanchez says “Be cautious with your text selections.” Ultimately you must balance the desire to push your children toward success without setting up unrealistic expectations.
“We always want to make sure we’re challenging our kids and ourselves as readers, but when you’re pushed beyond what you can handle it’s going to negatively affect what you can do,” Sanchez says.
“We want to give children situations that are challenging to them, that have struggles, but that also have a lot of opportunities for success.”
Such opportunities are likely to be in books of high interest to the reader – ones that hold attention. Amy and her Harry Potter–loving readers are a prime example of the difference it makes when children are reading books they really enjoy.
If the school curriculum doesn’t offer books on your child’s priority list, you have all the more reason to make reading part of home life — for both you and your child.
Set a good example
Inevitably, children are watching (and following) your every move, which makes it even more important to set an example that reading can be an enjoyable part of your daily routine. Meg Carroll, a professor at Xavier University, believes if you don’t make reading part of your own life you will have much more difficulty emphasizing the importance of reading in a child’s life. In her home, Carroll read aloud to her children until they went to high school. In her classroom, she continues to ask her students what has happened in a story and then helps them look back to find the answers in an effort to constantly model the behaviour of a good reader.
Enjoy the outcome
Every second you spend reading with your child will make a difference. You’ll reinforce good habits and skills that will help them succeed. And they’ll create amazing memories along the way.
“Reading is my favourite subject to teach. The best part is seeing them get excited.”
-Rachel Cicurel. Reproduced for educational purposes.