Reading is NOT a guessing game.
Each year I go through the same trials and tribulations with my students. Each year I make the same speeches and use the same phrases over and over. Oh, I add a few new ones from time to time if they really work. But these are my tried and true favorites that have worked for the last ten years:
“Look, Listen, and Learn”
“Hands on your own body, not your neighbor’s.”
“If it's NOT yours, ask first.”
“Do your best the first time.”
“Don’t guess…look and think.”
It’s that last one that was giving us trouble this past week.
Write “big” on the white board and ask fifteen kindergartners what they think it says. You’ll get about ten answers, all at once, and most will be totally random guesses- anything from horse to applesauce. Honestly, some of them have no reading experience or concepts at all. None. Zip. No clue.
I make them quiet down for a moment and then ask them:
What is the first letter?
How does it sound?
Then that’s the first sound I should hear from your mouth.
How many letters are there?
Sound out those other two.
Put them together.
Now, what does it really say?
It’s a tedious process, but it teaches them to take a moment to look and think before blurting out anything and everything that is in their little heads.
So how do I teach reading?
I start with the most basic premise: reading is not a guessing game. There are five things to remember about reading.
1. You have to read what is on the page. You can’t make something up based on the pictures. You can’t guess what it might say. You have to read the letters that are printed on the page. That may sound ludicrous until you read “The pan was hot.” with a class of kindergarteners and one of them shouts out “The pan was on the stove.” Been there, heard that. My response is easy, “first let’s count the words”. Of course that doesn’t match. Now, “show me the s for stove.” Oh, not there? Then you can’t say it.
2. Reading should sound somewhat familiar. For the most part we aren’t reading a foreign language, so what we read and what we write should sound like something we would hear or say. If we wouldn’t say, “the dog hat no the bad” then chances are we shouldn’t read it either. Try, “the dog sat on the bed” and think- doesn’t that makes more sense?
3. Reading is about comprehension. It isn’t worth reading something if you don’t understand and remember what you read. Many parents and a few teachers are so focused on reading skill and fluency that they forget about comprehension. You must work on this at the same time, always. What did that say? What did it mean? What did it remind you of? What did you like/not like? Never let your child read something without asking at least one question about it.
4. Reading is communication. It isn’t just something we do for school and it shouldn’t be a chore. It’s a vital part of every aspect of our lives. I don’t care if my students want to read recipes, comic books, video game instructions, or a list of the world’s strongest men. Reading is reading. Expose children to every kind of reading possible, but let them read what is important to them and they will be better readers.
5. Reading is a personal skill. I think we are wrong to push and prod each and every child to read at the same level and speed. I think we are wrong to expect every child to read as loudly and fluently and effortlessly as his classmate. Each child has a comfortable speed for fluency and comprehension. We don’t want to have a child stutter through a passage, but we know for a fact that few of us read with the elegance of James Earl Jones. Let’s focus more on teaching the skill and let the child develop it with time and practice, not pressure and unrealistic expectations.
words on a page.
Look and think.