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Books in the Home: What My First Grader Taught Me About Reading

Miles reads to his baby sister. Photo: Summer Clark.

What does it mean to learn to read? As a former first-grade teacher and a professor of literacy education, I have constructed plenty of answers over the years. But witnessing the process as a parent has led me to challenge any overly simplistic explanations and assumptions I had held. The most important things I’ll probably ever know about reading fluency are what I have learned by watching my son Miles.

The summer after kindergarten, Miles announced that he was determined to learn to read. Inspired by the local library’s reading program and socially motivated by peers, Miles set his own personal reading goal. Our library harbors a large supply of early readers. I helped him choose a stack that I found to be at an appropriate beginner level, with few words per page, basic beginning sight words, repetition of frequently used spelling patterns, and engaging topics that related to his interests — all of which I hoped would set him up to succeed in his task.

The aspect of reading that my son tackled that summer was fluency. Identified by the National Reading Panel (2000) as one of the “five pillars” of reading instruction, fluency is, basically, the ability to read with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression. Fluent readers get the words right, rarely have to stop to sound out words, and read like they mean it.

At first Miles’s reading was choppy and slow. I quickly realized that if, before he began, I enticed him with a preview by talking briefly through the content and pointing out challenging words, then continued the discussion afterward (aha! classic reading-teacher techniques that I now applied to my parenting!), he was much more excited and supported to read independently. These before, during, and after activities scaffolded his reading. Still, the first go-through was usually rough.

Once Miles had read a book several times he developed automaticity of the sight words, and, empowered by the sense of accomplishment, he rushed to read the book again and again (and record it in his reading log). In fact, he read his beloved See Me Run by Paul Meisel over twenty times that first week and mastered a speedy and animated telling, complete with sound effects and facial expressions. Then, whenever Miles came upon the same words elsewhere, or words containing similar patterns, he could read those words. Suddenly the repertoire of words he could read skyrocketed. He felt the exhilaration of becoming a reader.

By the end of the summer Miles had read approximately three hundred books, far surpassing his original goal. He had become almost a different kid — and certainly a different reader. He was now a fluent reader of mid-first-grade-level texts, and he read them accurately, quickly, and with expression (as well as meaning). Now I knew experientially what I had been teaching all along but had never truly known: my son had learned to read by reading.

* * *

Some children enter first grade excelling at recognizing sight words. Others don’t know as many sight words but have developed solid strategies for breaking down multisyllable words. Other children know lots of phonics patterns but aren’t fluent in reading words with those patterns. And other children have excellent skills using semantic cues; they know how to figure out words based on the context, yet their phonics might be weak.

Some children come to school armed with the most important pre-reading requirement of all: they have experienced the wonder of books and they want more of it for themselves. I read books to Miles long before he could read them himself, and so he started to appreciate literary elements (character, plot, theme) on a subconscious level and become entranced by literature years before tackling any word recognition. In those early reading-aloud sessions, Miles gained not only foundational knowledge of literary elements and structure, subject area background knowledge, language, and vocabulary, but also a delight in literature cemented by a strong parental emotional bond.

I knew, from reading the research literature, that volume is key to fluency. And that fluency is a tremendous stumbling block for many children: because they are not yet fluent readers, many children struggle with comprehension. They spend so much time sounding out words that they are unable to focus on meaning. If Miles had not read his earliest books over and over again, his labor in decoding the texts might have prevented him from enjoying the connections to his own life. If, when reading Emily Arnold McCully’s Late Nate in a Race (about a runner who begins reluctantly but ends up finishing first), he had only slowly called out the words, he might not have had the realization: “That’s like me in reading! I was slow but now I’m fast.”

In reviewing research by educators such as Patricia M. Cunningham, I began to more fully understand the purposes of techniques such as Readers’ Theater (performing a text by reading it for an audience, after first preparing through multiple repeated readings), choral reading (reading together with a group, in unison), and listening to recorded readings while following along in a book in order to develop fluency. And I learned firsthand the connections between fluency, sight words, and phonics: the more automatically a child recognizes sight words and uses phonics patterns, the more the child develops the primary tools to become fluent.

However, Richard L. Allington explains that many teachers, no matter how well meaning, don’t spend enough time engaging children in actual reading. Too many children are unable to fall under the spell of literature because they are too busy doing things that adults think are more important, spending the hours of the school day on skills exercises instead of books. While these exercises might be useful at times, they aren’t what children need the most: lots of time to read and re-read real books that excite them, foremost to experience the enchantment while, quite practically, to develop fluency. Though learning to read seems magical, it is actually rather simple. It’s enthusiastic practice and repetition that count.

* * *

But there isn’t just one kind of fluency, and fluency doesn’t just happen at a certain point. I proudly reported to friends that Miles learned to read last summer. But recently (and in front of some of these friends), I asked him to read the first page of a Geronimo Stilton book. I watched him struggle laboriously through the first sentence. As a reading teacher and literacy professor, I admit I was embarrassed that he wasn’t showing off his new skills as I had hoped he would. But I was also reawakened. I revisited the question I had been asking, researching, and teaching for years: “What does it mean to learn to read?”

Green Eggs and HamAlthough Miles is a fluent reader of first-grade-level texts, he is not yet a fluent reader of most second-grade-level texts. He can now read Green Eggs and Ham with flair, but isn’t quite ready for the Magic Tree House series on his own. So fluency learning isn’t something that occurs and is then finished; it happens in stages, and it depends on the context. Comprehension is similar: just because a child can comprehend a first-grade-level text doesn’t mean the child can comprehend a second- or third-grade text in an independent reading, and just because a child can comprehend a text about sharks doesn’t mean the child can necessarily comprehend a text about manatees. And the most important factor in reading — intrinsic motivation to learn — is what guides a reader to take the plunge into a text and to keep going. Miles, like all of us, reads books he cares about a whole lot better than books that don’t interest him.

There is no firm dichotomy between not knowing how to read and knowing how to read. Rather, all of the aspects of reading work as gradations, as notches along a continuum that is different for each child. As parents (and teachers), it can be all too easy to forget how incremental and individual the process can be. We tend to think in terms of “before” and “after,” when in actuality learning to read is a gradual process. And it never ends. We can all always become better readers.

Maybe I should not say that Miles has just learned to read, because he has been learning to read for years. And he, like all of us, will continue to learn to read for the rest of his life. What did happen last summer was thrilling and awesome. Miles made great progress in developing first-grade fluency and a new reading independence. He discovered within himself an important key that unlocks pages and pages of magic — and I hope that’s just the beginning.

From the September/October 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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Summer Clark About Summer Clark

Summer Clark is assistant professor of literacy education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She teaches courses on literacy, diversity, and education for social justice. Her writing has appeared in The Reading Teacher and The Routledge Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts (3rd edition).

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