THE ART AND SCIENCE OF LEARNING TO READ
November 29, 2018

Dear Harbor Families,

As a former second grade teacher, I taught many students as they transitioned from “learning to read” in the lower primary grades to “reading to learn”, which often happens just after second grade. I loved teaching reading because it was a complex challenge, and because helping a child progress along the path to becoming a reader is deeply rewarding.

Because all learners are unique, the path of learning to read is as well. Using a variety of different approaches is necessary to reach all children, and tailoring them toward individual students is a part of the process. You’ll hear teachers talking about “balanced literacy” and “differentiation”. We teach the skills and strategies of decoding, fluency, and comprehension in many different ways - we read to students to model strategies that good readers use, we work with students in small groups with books at their specific reading level, we have them experiment with phonics patterns, we ask them to read independently, we have them respond to text orally and in writing, we teach and practice “sight words” that don’t follow phonics rules, and we explicitly teach strategies for comprehension - to name a few.

Our teachers at Harbor use the Readers Workshop model, a highly regarded approach based on current research and best practices that has been developed and refined by Columbia University’s Teachers College. Reading instruction most often begins with a mini-lesson to introduce, model, or reinforce a reading skill or strategy. It may be a comprehension strategy such as predicting, visualizing, or questioning, or a skill such as paying attention to punctuation while reading orally, or a strategy for figuring out a word you don’t know. Students then apply what they have learned through supportive, differentiated small groups, partner reading, and independent reading. Students are matched with “just right books” that allow them to expand their skills and strategies in the “zone of proximal development” - that delicate place where reading is challenging but not frustrating and pushes them into the next level as a reader. Phonics are taught through our Words Their Way program, where students are challenged to discover and work with sound/letter correspondence and patterns in words, as well as the many phonetic exceptions in the English language.

Now that I have thrown a bunch of educational jargon at you… I’ll take a moment to respond to that question that might be brewing in your mind: “What should I be doing to reinforce all of this at home?”

Please just go ahead and forget all of that jargon! Because - remember - your job as a parent is not to teach reading. That’s our job. Yes, of course - it will only help to reinforce phonics patterns as you notice them as a family, ask questions about the text you see in the environment around you, and encourage your child to figure out a new word or tell you the sounds of the letters he or she has been practicing at school. However, the very best way to reinforce learning to read is, well, to read with your child, and to have fun doing it! Research has shown that kids who experience reading as part of their family culture from an early age read earlier and are more likely to be lifelong readers. So read to your child daily, model that you are a reader yourself, and use reading time as a way to connect and bond with each other (as if you didn’t already know that!).

Finally, because I am often asked about how to choose the “right” books, I’ll give you two (somewhat conflicting) pieces of advice about books.

1. As a society, there is no question that we need diverse books. Take a critical look at what is on your bookshelf at home. Do your books represent both mirrors and windows? “Mirror books” reflect back a child’s own identity, experiences, and cultures, and “window books” provide a view into others’ identities, experiences and cultures. If you are looking for resources to further enhance your collection of diverse books, check out resources provided by Diverse Kids or explore the We Need Diverse Books website. Both are excellent resources and are fulfilling important missions.

2. Once you have made a variety of books available (whether in your home library, your local library, or the Harbor library), let your child choose what he or she wants to read. To develop a love of reading, kids need to connect with books that interest and motivate them to read more. Once a person loves to read, they will read more. And the more one reads, the better reader she or he will become. So, if that means your child is into a graphic novel or a series that just doesn’t reflect “high quality literature” in your mind, that’s okay.

And while I have you, you know that book that you are so sick of reading with your child over and over and over again? Stick with it, because rereading is proven to be good for developing readers.

Well. This has become quite a long letter and I’ve only scratched the surface. If you are interested in seeing the slide deck from my presentation on Tuesday morning about this topic, it’s linked here. Or, feel free to stop by for a conversation with me. I could talk about this stuff all day!

Warm regards,

Leah Musico
Head of School
The Harbor School

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