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Teaching kids to read is much harder than you think

A child literacy expert explains why teaching reading is such a challenge.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Literacy expert Nell Duke has said that teaching children to read is like rocket science.

She brought that message to Philadelphia on Tuesday, when she addressed key players in the city’s READ! by 4th campaign, a collaboration of educators, organizations, and businesses dedicated to having all 4th graders proficient in reading by 2020.

“Teaching children to read by 4th grade is a formidable task more akin to cardiac surgery than it is akin to what many people think of as an easy, playful task,” said Duke.

Earlier that day, Duke, a professor at the University of Michigan, had spoken to 700 teachers taking a weeklong workshop on classroom best practices regarding literacy.

In Philadelphia, about half of all 3rd graders were proficient in reading in 2012. In District-run schools, the figure is closer to 40 percent.

“Surgeons get four years of undergrad, four years of medical school, at least four years of residency and two years of a post-residency specialization. And in Michigan, I need two courses to teach reading," said Duke. "To be a cosmetologist in Michigan you need at least 15 times as much coursework as you need to teach reading.”

Duke emphasized that a lack of training for teachers and a gap between researchers and those working in the classroom on best practices are core reasons why literacy instruction is a challenge.

She talked about teaching practices that research has supported, and debunked misconceptions.

“There are many ways to influence the literary trajectories of young children, particularly young children in poverty,” she said. “There are things that we know from research that can actually change literacy outcomes for kids.”

According to Duke, if you ask the general public what kids need to know to learn how to read, they will respond that they need to learn the alphabet and how to decode words. She challenged this common notion by explaining that this is just one sliver of all of the things they need to know to actually be successful readers by 4th grade.

Duke identified some focal areas of language and literacy development that should be pushed in every preschool and K-3 classroom.

One critical area, “oral language,” addresses the need for students to develop vocabulary. “A rich base in oral language, especially for children living in poverty, is something that must be covered,” said Duke.

To explain this concept, Duke displayed the sentence, “the snail stood up to his pal the slug.” The word “pal” is all over decodable texts, but kids today don’t use the word “pal” and families today don’t use the word “pal.” You can see why knowledge of school vocabulary becomes important almost right away, she explained.

Similarly, with the sentence “observe the veins in the leaf,” Duke pointed out that families of any social group most likely use the word “look” instead of “observe.” Therefore, if a student hasn’t heard the word “observe” before, they are already at a disadvantage.

Another area of focus is what Duke called concepts of print. This idea, which should be stressed in preschool, speaks to our responsibility to teach kids why we pay attention to print. To illustrate the importance of this theory, Duke gave the example of “the door hinge vs. the restroom sign.”

“I would venture to guess that no one in here paid attention to what kind of hinge was on the door to the restroom,” she said. “You probably can’t describe the hinge in any way.”

By contrast, “Every one of you paid attention to the sign on the restroom that indicated whether that is a restroom for men, women, or both.”

The adult brain is trained to notice some things and not others. We learn in this society that print is important. But, she added, “Little kids aren’t born knowing that the little scribble marks are important and that the door hinges are not. The hinges are just as interesting as the marks to them.”

A lot of kindergarten instruction assumes that kids already know what’s important, when oftentimes they don’t.

“Many kids come to us in our preschool environment and in our K-1 environment not knowing this stuff. So instruction becomes very difficult when we assume these things,” she said.

In this same way, “concepts of print” extends to instilling in students an understanding of how print works – in our society, reading from top to bottom and left to right. This must be taught because this process isn’t innately logical or universal, she said.

Duke also urged educators to focus on widening students’ genre knowledge. Young readers must understand that there are different kinds of print such as lists, diary entries, and stories. This introduction early on will allow kids to orient themselves more readily when they see text.

Duke highlighted phonological awareness and sound and letter relationships as the two critical areas where instruction is most deficient.

Phonological awareness is a students’ ability to understand the sounds inside words. For example, the word “jump” has four distinct sounds, J-U-M-P, that all work together to form the word that we recognize as “jump.”

According to Duke, if you’re literate, it’s easy for you to understand these sounds. But students need to be able to recognize these different sounds to be able to read a word and spell it through which is another concept known as phonetic blending.

“Phonetic awareness and phonetic blending is a real stopping point for a lot of our kids,” she explained. “The problem is if they don’t get this early, then when everyone else is working on developing their spelling and reading ability, these kids are left wondering what everyone else is talking about.”

Duke also raised concern about how we teach the alphabet.

“A lot of teachers will teach the alphabet with key words, but this can be misleading for students if they can’t hear the “buh” sound inside of “ball,” for example. The teacher might have well have said ’B’ is for ’clock.’ It wouldn’t matter, because the kids can’t hear the sound in it anyway.”

Duke added: “This is easy to instruct. It’s really critical and a lot of people don’t know about it, and that’s the problem with literacy development.”

With “sound and letter relationships,” she explained that it is important to know that the letter “V” represents the “V” sound and that the letters “S” and “H” make the “shh” sound together, because this is not common knowledge for students.

“In English, we have 44 or so important sounds that distinguish one word from another, but we only have 26 alphabet letters. We have a bit of a conundrum there when we combine letters to make sounds,” she said. To address this problem Duke suggested that educators go beyond focusing on the alphabet to making sure kids know the sounds associated with the alphabet letter.

Duke encouraged educators to be honest and straightforward with students at this level—they should know why “was” isn’t spelled “wuz” and why “dog” isn’t spelled “wg."

She also provided the audience with interventions for families and community members.

Duke suggested that every community should have workshops to instruct parents on ways to strengthen literacy in the early years.

“So much of the work with families around literacy in this country has been, Read to your kids. They also suggest Read to your kids. And another idea they have is Read to your kids," she said.

"And the problem with that is, I’ve worked with a lot of families that will never read to their kids, not because they are bad people, not because they don’t love their kids, but maybe because they are working three jobs and there just isn’t a time of day when this will work. There are lots of reasons.”

The parent workshops that Duke has already run and tested in Michigan showed that children grew more in literacy if their families attended their workshops than if they did not attend. These workshops offered parents ideas on how to bolster literacy.

In the kitchen, for example: Parents can have their students make lists for groceries, make place cards for the dinner table, get ingredients from the pantry, order ingredients or even have their children read them a story, or pretend to read a story, as they cook. Pretending to read, it turns out, is an important step in literacy development in preschool years.

Conversations at the dinner table that extend beyond the “here and now,” Duke said, also aid in comprehension development.

Child care was another area Duke addressed. More than 60 percent of children in the United States under the age of 6 receive non-parental child care on a daily basis, she said. Training child-care professionals to promote literacy in their locations makes a difference.

“Just 10 hours of training had a statistically significant difference on their literacy practices,” said Duke.

More effective out-of-school time programming and giving students access to books they can keep were other ways Duke cited to boost literacy.

“Every kid is different, but we can influence literacy outcomes,” said Duke, “We need to implement interventions that are based on research the right way.”

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