Sunday, 27 October 2019

Learning to Read is a Meandering Journey!

"Why some people become lifelong readers: A lot rides on how parents 
present the activity to their kids." - Joe Pinsker




The majority of children entering school at Kindergarten and/or Grade One are excited to become readers - it is the most common goal children express when they first come to school: to learn to read!  Some children even believe they will learn to read the very day they enter school and are quite disappointed when they go home after the first day, still not feeling like they have learned to read! As excited and enthusiastic as many early learners are to become successful readers, the reality is that reading is not something accomplished quickly or easily - to become a successful reader is a meandering journey - some things happen quite quickly while developing other skills seems to take an interminably long time. The process of learning and practicing new skills related to reading is not a linear one, has no predictable timeline of achievement and is not reliant on similar teaching and learning for every child. This means the process of learning to read naturally follows a meandering path, pursued idiosyncratically by every reader in their own way. This is the beauty and the challenge for both learning to read, and for teaching children to learn to read. And, as a parent with expectations to engage a child in 'Home Reading', the challenge is real and unpredictable.

However, there are things a parent can do to support this meandering journey regardless of where your child is along the path to becoming a reader.

The most important thing to know about children learning to read is that the best way to become a proficient, successful reader is to read a lot!  And, to become a joyful reader, a child needs to read a lot of books they love! These are two critically important considerations for parents who are reading at home with their children already, as well as for families who are engaging in 'home reading' expectations with their child and their child's school.

If reading a lot books children love is critically important for supporting the learning of reading through Home Reading, then there are definitely a few things parents can do to ensure their children have frequent access to books they love and actually read them frequently at home:

  • surround your child with books they love at home
    • this does not mean a parent needs to purchase a library full of books for home
    • it may mean introducing your child to the local branch of your public library and finding favourite books to borrow and keep at home for a couple of weeks, going back to refresh selections from time to time
    • "It is almost tautological to observe that being a reader sets a child up for academic success, since so much of school is reading...(but) children who grow up surrounded by books tend to attain higher levels of education and to be better readers." (Joe Pinsker, Sept/19)
    • building a collection of much-loved books can mean accessing a local "Little Free Library" close to home, as well as collecting well-loved books from garage, rummage or used-book sales, as well as friends and family members with older children looking to cull childhood book collections
  • encourage your child to develop 'fluent decoding' skills and strategies 
    • Daniel Willingham, author of Raising Kids Who Read, describes fluent decoding skills as being able to smoothly "go from print on the page to words in the mind"
    • Decoding letters and sounds to make sense of words are the phonetic components of learning to read that are part of the practice of teaching children to read; parents can gently encourage their children to use these skills through wordplay games as children practice decoding during home reading experiences 
    • examples of wordplay might include encouraging a child by making the sounds yourself slowly until they jump in with a suggestion; asking what would make sense; noticing the first/second sounds for the child; asking if they know what sound the first letters make; asking does this look or sound like something you already know; suggesting a rhyming word
  • develop background knowledge and experiences with your child so they have a lot of prior knowledge they can make connections with as they decode words to make meaning
    • once a child can successfully decode print on the page to words in their mind, they will need to be able to next make connections to prior knowledge and generate meaning seamlessly
    • Willingham notes "the main predictor of whether a child or an adult understands a text is how much they already know about a topic." When children are encouraged to choose favourite books to read, usually they will be about a topic with which they are familiar, meaning will come quickly and joy of reading will follow 
    • "parents can try to arm their kids with information about the world that will help them interpret whatever they come across in print, or make sure their kids have some familiarity with whatever it is they're reading about" (Willingham)
  • develop motivation for reading with your child
    • a positive attitude about reading that develops from frequent interactions with best-loved books, both at home and at school, will yield a positive image by your child of themselves as a reader  
    • encouraging your child to choose their own books for reading is highly motivating - children can learn strategies for choosing appropriate texts, both in terms of text complexity as well as interest/genre
    • young children in particular will quickly memorize text and then want to return to their favourite books again and again to practice reading - this is a good thing! Finding other books by the same author or about the same topic are excellent strategies for transitioning away from repeated texts that are crowding out new reading opportunities
While parents often want to use the same strategies they used when they read with their parents at home, such as covering up the pictures, keeping the home reading experience as fun, positive and gentle as possible will achieve the goals of the school (to practice skills and strategies taught in class) while also introducing and reinforcing the intrinsic value of joyful reading in the moment. This is how children are fostered into avid, joyful readership that will ensure lifelong positive experiences with reading. 

Nothing about the processes described above indicates predictability or specific pathways to learning to read that can be definitively mapped for all children. Each child, when well supported both at home and school, will find places to zoom ahead or rest awhile as they are exposed to a variety of texts and topics, genres and associated experiences. The most important aspect of this meandering learning journey is that children become avid, joyful readers at their own pace and in their own way!

Lorraine Kinsman, Principal 

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Sprinkling Fun into Home Reading :)

Reading will seem more like chocolate cake if it’s something that parents themselves take part in happily and regularly. 
“When I’m sitting there on my couch, reading a book, and my kids are 
doing their own thing, I like to think, ‘I’m parenting right now—they 
can see me reading this book." 
                               -  (Maria Paul, "How to Raise a Reader") 

I am exploring the phenomenon of 'home reading' in this blog (see previous entries): Snapshot: How Home Reading Became One More Thing on the 'To Do List' for Families (Sept. 8/19)  What Do Parents Need to Notice and Know about Home Reading? (Sept. 15/19)  Strategies for Home Reading with A Child - What Makes Sense for a Parent? (Sept. 23/19)Reading at Home with Early Readers (Sept. 29/19)Why Reading at Home Makes Such a Difference for Children Learning to Read (October 8/19)Hopefully, these entries will help families support this enormously important and relatively untapped resource for helping children develop  as lifelong, successful readers.

Sometimes, as parents, we think 'home reading' means 'homework' and we treat it like homework was treated when we were kids (which may vary from generation to generation, but for me, growing up, homework was not considered the 'fun' part of being home from school - just saying...).  We assign a time to it, we pre-empt other, more fun-focused activities until 'after home reading is done', we sigh when we talk about it with our children like it is a chore similar to loading the dishwasher, we get impatient when our child doesn't rush to get the book and read it magically well and it shows in our voices and our body language. We ask where the sign up sheet has gone like losing it means the end of the world. And all this negative wrap-around makes home reading sound and feel like it is something to be avoided at all costs that will never be enjoyable or truly worthwhile. Our children see and hear this and they mimic our body language, our voices, our expressions of frustration and do all they are able to avoid getting caught reading that home reading book again...

There are some easy things to do to ensure children experience reading at home as an enjoyable activity they might want to learn to do independently and celebrate as a positive and rewarding life skill. They will be looking to us, as parents and teachers, for the cues as to what is a fun-filled recreational activity and what is a chore and it won't just be our words that carry the strongest message; it will be our faces, our voice tones and our body language that send the message 'reading is a wonderful thing to do' or 'don't make me read that again - I don't like reading at all!' Just like we smile and coo at infants to get them to smile and vocalize back, how we engage in the acts associated with home reading will elicit responses from our children that reflect our personal values associated with reading for pleasure. 

First of all, don't wait for a recording sheet of books/minutes read by your child, or instructions on how to engage your child in home reading, to be sent home from your child's teacher. Just start - or continue - reading to them and with them as you always have. Children usually love to be read to - hearing a favoured adult's animated voice sharing a story with them is positive attention on steroids! If you already read with your child regularly, all that is required is a bit of a shift in what you are reading and doing while reading. Begin to encourage your child to choose a book they can share in reading in addition to the ones you are already sharing - this could be an easy reading book, a board book or a much-loved picture book - but preferably it will be one they are familiar with and are beginning to recognize the words, sounds, rhythm of the story. Stopping to point out a familiar rhyming word or sound, pointing to a picture and asking about what's happening there, focusing on the meaning of a particular word - these are all simple ways to begin drawing a child's attention to the text.  

In the beginning, it is not important whether or not they are sounding out or decoding text because what's really happening is building familiarity with text over time - understanding there is a permanence of text features that are reliably always present. Even as a seasoned grade 5/6 teacher with over 30 years experience, I continue to be surprised at the number of children who simply have not yet developed an appreciation for the permanency of text features, such as uppercase letters to begin sentences, names, places, etc or what it means when quotation marks are present. They may even be able to identify what a particular text feature is while not understanding why it exists. It takes time and repeated revisiting to understand text features. And reading orally and with humour and play while learning text features is a reliably positive experience with young children. It is also not important whether or not a beginning reader 'reads' the whole text, not even a short picture book with simple words. Usually a good rule of thumb is when they lose interest, move away from the 'home reading text' and back into the read aloud story. We want reading to be pleasurable, not a task to be measured at home.

As time passes, your child will begin to gradually demonstrate mastery over some basic reading strategies - how to hold the book, read text from left to right, discuss ideas for meaning, predict a word or what will happen next, make connections to other stories they have read or movies they have seen. Celebrate this - you could have a mini white board or chalkboard where you record favourite stories they are reading more or less independently - or a list of the fridge titled "Jacks Favourite Books" that you may add to as new titles become easier and more favoured by your child. There could be a small, separate bookshelf somewhere to home their favourite personal reads.

Before settling to read with your child each day, spend a few moments with the book, exploring it carefully together. What does your child notice about the pictures? Cover? Do they think the story is true (non-fiction) or not (fiction)? Why 0r why not? Share your opinion too! What do they think might happen? why? why not? Who is in the story? How many characters are in the story? Where do they think the story might be taking place (setting)? If the title has a particularly challenging word (such as 'Remember' or 'Gigantic' or something a little out of the ordinary) point to it and talk about the word and what it means. Reading doesn't have to be a guessing game your child doesn't feel successful with, it should be a shared, enjoyable experience.

Even as your child becomes a more proficient reader, these strategies still hold. What do they notice? Predict? What does the story remind them of? Why did they choose this book? Who is the author? Have they read anything else written by the same person? There are limitless possibilities for brief discussions before beginning the actual reading that activate prior knowledge and set your child up for enjoyable reading success.

If you are a reader, chances are your child will want to be a reader too. But what happens if you are not a person who is naturally inclined to reading? Talk about that with your child while making the time investment to read with them - it demonstrates interest in their learning and growth which is always a positive parenting move.  And if you do your reading in magazines or newspapers or online, share that with your child too - there are many ways to be a reader. 

Talk about books - at the dinner table, at the store, on a walk. When you notice your child looking at a new book, let them know you noticed - ask what the book's about or why they are interested in it, provoke a conversation. Visit the public library or any 'little free library' in your neighbourhood and invest a little time in looking at different titles, genres, authors. Give books as gifts - although my son once told me he thought he would have been invited to more birthday parties if people didn't always know they were going to get books in advance! Honestly, I think he attended more than enough birthdays so books must have been appropriate to give :) Build small collections with your child of favourite titles and authors. Encourage your child to make a banner for their room that says "Emily's Library of Favourite Books" or something similar.  It is not necessary to have a lot of books, just books they love to read.

Instead of watching a movie while driving, listen to a children's audiobook. As a family we have listened to the whole Harry Potter series a couple of times during summer driving trips across Canada and the US, for example, and any Roald Dahl book makes for a wonderful audio book experience. And who doesn't love listening to 'Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe' stories? They are favourites with my grandchildren! Listening to an audio book with a sketch book and pencils is even better - sketching what you hear as a child helps build attention to detail and strengthen imagery skills. A word of caution, though, from last week's blog post - animated books do not build brain connections between language, visual perception and imagery skills in the same way that listening to stories or picture books does - while they may be tempting to share with children from time to time, listening to an animated story does not build the intended skills associated with home reading activities. 

So, there are numerous ways to entice your young reader into engaging in home reading aside from taking the book sent home from the teacher, along with the recording sheet, and saying, 'Let's get this home reading thing over with for this evening." Homework is not home reading but home reading can be a delightful beginning foray into homework of a different flavour! What's important is your participation as an enthusiastic, positive adult, child-choices about what to read, conversation about the book prior to reading, sharing the load of decoding and making sense of text, not persisting with the text past the point of your child's interest and tolerance and shifting from home reading to parental read aloud to close out the experience. Let your child see you are enjoying the experience of reading with them even if you are doubtful about their capabilities - remember they are just learning and learning is not sequential nor predictable; it happens differently for every child. Make a video of your child reading to you each week for just a couple of minutes - and then compare them to see how much they have improved (if they are reading each day for a few minutes, regardless of their level of proficiency or engagement, there will be improvement :)

And, finally, never underestimate the power of rhyme - children love rhyming books and poems, the sillier the better. They learn about word families and predictable text from rhymes and songs and the children who figure out rhymes most easily, typically tend to learn to read more easily as well. Alphabet books, rhyming books, illustrated children's song books are also wonderful places to launch readers beginning to make sense of text. And another way to sprinkle fun into the home reading experience!

Lorraine Kinsman, Principal

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Why Reading at Home Makes Such a Difference for Children Learning to Read

'When we read to our children, they are doing more work than meets the eye. "It's that muscle they're developing bringing the images to life in their minds"...researchers saw increased connectivity between - and among - all the networks they were looking at: visual perception, imagery, default mode and language.'  - Anya Kamenetz (2018) 

I am exploring the phenomenon of 'home reading' in this blog (see previous entries): 
 Strategies for Home Reading with A Child - What Makes Sense for a Parent? (Sept. 23/19)
Reading at Home with Early Readers (Sept. 29/19)
Hopefully, these entries will help families support this enormously important and relatively untapped resource for helping children develop  as lifelong, successful readers.

I am always hopeful children are being read to at home from the time they are infants - hearing a parents' voice, being cuddled on a lap to share a story - are enormously important aspects of social-emotional development and, in an ideal world, extending these read aloud experiences into a more child-centered opportunity for learning to read is a natural progression. In an ideal world - but, in truth, how many of us get to live in an ideal world? And how many of us understand exactly why this can make such a difference in a child's life?

Transitioning from read aloud to reading independently often takes a few years, to be honest. Hearing the language is the start of something amazing as parents read aloud to their child, and once they begin to take on the tasks of making sense of text, parents' reading to them is like a magical magnet that attracts them to increasingly complex text, ideas and genres they initially have challenges making sense of on their own. There are four distinct brain networks that work together to help children make sense of stories and written information - visual perception, imagery, default mode and language (Hutton, 2018). 

When we read aloud to our children, their language mode is activated and when we share the pictures with them, they begin to develop greater visual perception. The brain naturally connects the two to build imagery skills and strategies so children can virtually begin to 'see' a story or idea in their minds as we read the words to them. These images might mirror the pictures associated with the text, or extend to include other images that remind them of what is in the story and, ultimately, allow them to create original images spurred by the words they are hearing but completely original and of their own creation. The default mode network describes areas of the brain that become active outside the task at hand when a child's attention strays from concentrating on a task or activity (in other words, what children are thinking of when they are not focused on using listening, visual or imagination strategies and skills). The act of reading to a child reinforces the importance of staying attentive to the activity at hand, and this is where we want the default mode to be strongest - with working to stay focused on a task. 

At the same time, when parents are reading to children, there is a natural 'dialogic reading' taking place as well. This is the act of pointing out specific words or pictures, asking questions of children (such as: 'where is the mouse now?') This exchange between parent and your child helps build significant bonding between both, both emotionally and physically, which is essential for a child's healthy growth and development. Reading to - and with - a child has many benefits, academically, emotionally and physically. 

The most effective reading aloud activities involve both reading and sharing pictures associated with a text. This offers children immediate and obvious connections between text and pictures or photographs, and begins to foster greater acuity with both visual perception development and imagery. Moving from the stage of reading to a child to beginning to connect pictures and words is how we make the first steps toward learning to read, and this may be the stage a child is at as they enter Kindergarten and the first rumblings about 'home reading' begin to surface. 

Research has shown us that of all the options available for sharing stories with children, a parent reading to them and sharing the pictures in the book is the most effective. While many other options exist today for children to engage in stories - including audio books or animated online videos and stories - the evidence clearly indicates the most effective read aloud experiences involve reading text and sharing pictures. Hutton's research (2018) indicates this is the most effective strategy for activating all four areas of the brain networks needed to develop as successful readers, and further states 'with animation, it's all dumped on them all at once and they don't have to do any of the work...the imagery and default mode networks mature later, and it takes practice to integrate these with the rest of the brain. With animation, you may miss an opportunity to develop them." Children who are consistently exposed to animation rather than reading text with pictures may be at risk for immature development of brain integration of the visual perception, language, imagery and default network mode connections essential to becoming a proficient reader as a child grows. 

Reluctant readers - or those children who balk at trying to read words or engage in self-reading strategies - are often those most overwhelmed by the demands of processing language through these four brain networks. They struggle to generate mental pictures of what they are reading or being read and are much less reflective about story content or information. Usually they need the most practice with bringing the visual, verbal and imagery clues together and their default network mode generally is more distracted by other things so they lose track of what they are doing. Reluctant readers often need much greater exposure to these transitional kinds of read aloud, read aloud with pictures and dialogic reading as they attempt to build brain strengths in making sense of language through practice, practice, practice. 

Once a child has demonstrated they understand the connections between text and pictures, either with a parent or older sibling or grandparent reading to and with them, concrete associations between text and words (such as drawing, labelling, re-creating a story with loose parts, acting out a story, beginning to sequence a story in pictures and then words) all lead the early reader to a sense making, connected way of gathering meaning from text. These are the early stages of the home reading experience and do not require a formal invitation from a teacher for participation. Early reading books abound in libraries and bookstores, available for parents to use independently at home as they begin to foster these early reading skills through less formal but still highly beneficial acts of home reading. The teacher does not necessarily need to select a book for a student - a child is quite capable of choosing a book they are interested in and would like to share with a parent. Repeating the patterns of 'reading' text as the child engages with the story in a multitude of readings and experiences are essential for developing interests in learning to read and skills that will eventually bring all the learning networks in the brain together to become a proficient reader.

Lorraine Kinsman, Principal