Does Your School Reading Program Make the Grade?
By Evelyn Russo, Ph.D. and Eve Kessler, Esq.
While there may be no such thing as a perfect reading program for students with dyslexia and other language learning disabilities, The National Reading Panel has identified five core components of reading, each of which must be taught explicitly and systematically. The components are:
• Phoneme awareness
• Phonics (code instruction)
• Text comprehension
Words are made up of individual speech sounds called phonemes. Phoneme awareness—the ability to isolate each sound in a word and blend individual sounds—is a prerequisite for reading and spelling instruction. In pre-school, children begin to learn that language can be broken up into smaller units: sentences are made up of words and words are made up of syllables. This realization leads to the awareness that words are comprised of sounds. For example, a cat is a small furry animal that purrs, and it begins with the same sound as my name, Caitlin.
A child is designated a beginning reader when he understands that the sounds coming out of his mouth correspond to the letters of the alphabet. A child with full phoneme awareness has mastered rhyming, understands that words are made up of different syllables, hears the first sound of a word first, the final sound next, and the middle sound last, hears blends in a word (st-o-p), and processes all five sounds in a word like blast with two separate sounds before and after the vowel. For instruction purposes, a teacher needs to assess a child’s ability level and stage of awareness, as teaching strategies differ depending on those factors.
The spelling patterns of English (called orthography) must be taught so children can “lift words off the page.” One way to determine how much a child knows about the English writing system is to assess his ability to “read” nonsense words with letter patterns that are seen in real words, for example: glame as in the word flame.
Reading instruction should be fun. Lessons may include jingles, recognizing and sorting pictures and words, making words with children acting out the sounds, etc. Older students benefit from teaching the meaning units of English, including what various roots mean, as well as prefixes and suffixes. This instruction helps to unlock the meaning of many words necessary for understanding vocabulary used in science and social studies texts.
Vocabulary is critical for reading comprehension. Oral language skills are crucial for the development of a full vocabulary. Words and word knowledge may be developed through direct vocabulary instruction using engaging activities, such as read-alouds, audiobooks, or pictures that capture the essence of the meaning of words. Early elementary school-aged children also build their vocabulary and word knowledge through dialogue and conversation: asking questions, word chats, talking about places they’ve been, and experiences they’ve had. Once a word is in a child’s mental dictionary, he is able to use it in his speaking and writing.
It is important to teach “tier 2” words—words that are not content specific, such as refreshing, shimmer, outgoing, gleaned, convince, and resourceful. These words, found mostly in books, must be taught through direct instruction, usually after teachers have introduced them during read-alouds.
Skilled readers read every word and recognize a word both in and out of context. Fluent readers recognize words instantly and monitor comprehension as they go. Poor readers with weak decoding skills over-rely on context. A child must read accurately before he can be automatic and fluent while reading text. One of the best ways to improve reading fluency is to practice with all kinds of text at the child’s reading level.
Reading comprehension is the process of extracting and constructing meaning from the text. It involves dynamic interaction between the reader, the text and the reader’s knowledge. In order to be considered proficient, students must be accurate and automatic decoders and understand spoken and written language.
Before children learn to read, they build comprehension skills by listening to stories read aloud. This narrative language has two parts: the organizing structure of the story (macrostructure) and the language that is used to tell the story (microstructure). Children first understand a story as a descriptive sequence as they learn about the set-up for the story. For example: Once upon a time there were three pigs who lived near a wolf in the woods. Ask the child to picture the set-up: Where are the characters? What do the characters look like? The descriptions may be followed by an action sequence that kicks off the events, a reactive sequence describing how the characters feel about the initiating event, an abbreviated episode, and a complete episode, during which the characters make a plan.
Teaching reading comprehension involves helping a child develop awareness by talking him through the different stages of the story and asking questions as you go. For example: What happened there? What happened next? Why did he make that plan? Was it successful? Why or why not?
If a child doesn’t have relevant background knowledge about a topic, he can’t talk about it or write about it. To help a child gain background knowledge, you might need to give him scripts. For example, talk about what happens in various places and in different environments, such as at the beach or in a restaurant. Give him the actual vocabulary words to use when discussing a day at the beach or a trip to a restaurant, the general narrative and the specific details. Look at visuals together, such as photographs, videos, films and pictures to help develop his vocabulary and background knowledge.
As children learn more about what they’re being asked to read, they will be motivated to read more. This, along with direct instruction in phoneme awareness and decoding principles, will provide novice readers with the tools they need to master a skill that is the most important one they will ever learn.