Late in 2016, I decided that I would make teaching my daughter how to read a priority. By year’s end, I declared, she will be able to read short phrases and multiple sight words. Ambitious? Nah. I would use the methods my teachers used with me, which were also how I learned to teach reading when earning my Masters of Arts in Teaching Elementary Education, and how I eventually taught my own students during my 12 years of both classroom and tutoring lessons. My plans were to first teach her the alphabet, next explain that each letter makes a sound, follow up with consonant blends, instruct her to sound out entire words, and drill her on sight words. Later, I would provide her with the reading strategies like identifying text-to-self or text-to-text connections, predicting, and inferring. If it worked for me, it will work for her! This was until I came across Steven Bialostok’s Raising Readers: Helping Your Child to Literacy at a used bookstore, which has completely challenged my way of thinking___and teaching.
In short, the author, then reading/language arts specialist for the Sacramento-area school district and now a professor with a Ph.D. at the University of Wyoming, advises parents that the best way to teach their children to read is simply this: “talk to your child, provide experiences for your child, and read aloud to your child” (141). It could not be that easy, could it? I talk to her daily, we regularly enjoy our outings, and of course I read to her! Give me more strategies, Man! Instead, his message to us parents of preschool-aged children is not to stress about how early our children will begin actively reading because in the same way that we trust our children will crawl or walk when they are ready, so can we expect them to “emerge naturally into reading” (47). I know what you’re thinking—“Say what?!” In fact, he affirms, “The reason that walking and talking occurs without much worry is because we trust children. We trust that they’ll learn to walk and we trust that they’ll talk. We must also trust that they will read” (55). [Enter shocked emoji here.]
Now, being an experienced educator who proudly sees her daughter as her sole pupil, trusting that my toddler will read when she is (ahem) “ready” challenges all I have learned and practiced. How, tell me how, will this happen? Still, as I read on, his arguments began making total sense. For example, he points out that too much emphasis is given to teaching phonemic awareness first rather than teaching the child to use an array of skills to determine the meaning of the text as a whole. He illustrates this by pointing out how difficult it would be for an individual to put together a jigsaw puzzle if she was only given the pieces without giving her a chance to study the image on the box cover. This would cause the participant to become disinterested in the objective as a whole since it would become too difficult to complete (similar to one losing interest in reading because too much focus and distraction is placed on a single word’s phoneme).
Remember asking what a word said and hearing, “Sound it out,” as a response? This is how teachers and parents place too much emphasis on phonics when instead, we could offer to help our child to gather hints from context clues, illustrations, and even use the first letter of the word in question to help solve its pronunciation. While he does believe that phonics is indeed a tool an emerging reader can utilize when reading, his argument is that it should not be taught first. Instead, parents should be teaching children to infer meaning of the context or a word by using skills like predicting, discussing the context or setting, and providing hints constantly during story time (when caregivers read stories aloud to children) and especially not wait to teach these strategies until they learn what sounds the letters make. That is, we should be using these moments with our children to model good reading strategies from the start and eventually, trust that our children will engage in reading organically.
Almost immediately, my husband and I put Bialostok’s advice to work at home. We now practice Drop Everything and Read (D.E.A.R.) time where we sit and model that we too are readers by diving into our own books while she sits nearby and “reads” her stack of books—something I did not think she was capable of until she was much older. Rest assured, after some initial tears, “Mommy sit and read” requests, and telling me about her book repeatedly, she eventually understood that it is a quiet time when we both sit and read independently, which she can now do for 40 glorious minutes. Forty, People. We have also increased the frequency of reading books with repeated phrases and now, she regularly “reads” what she recalls aloud. Other times, our daughter will rely on her memory or use the illustrations for clues as to what the text might mean. This is precisely the reading skills Bialostok encourages us to teach because the child is then reading for meaning, not just pronunciation. Then, it happened. Just last month, our two-year-old picked up a book we had never read to her exclaiming, “A good night book!” The book was Good Night, Gorilla. We believe she was able to recognize “good night” from her plethora of books with that exact phrase. [Enter weeping emoji here.]
So although Bialostok published his book back in 1992, we strongly adhere to his advice since we are am now witnessing the very stages of reading he believes will take place naturally if we just make story time a priority and ultimately trust that our child will one day become an engaged reader.