The focus for children learning to read, sometimes undervalued by those concerned about phonics, is instilling a joy of reading. The ultimate goal should be that children are able to read and like it.
Phonics is important, especially when children have reading disabilities, but it shouldn’t stand alone. Science of Reading (SoR) supporters will argue that they cover fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension along with phonics (the pillars of the controversial National Reading Panel), but it’s rare to read about the importance of children’s literature in SoR discussions.
But if children are only drilled and read mostly decodable books (bland), with little emphasis on free reading, why will they care? How will they become curious?
This concern is reflected in a recent study by the University College London (UCL) called Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy, and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading.
The study shows that teachers in England have felt pressured since 2012, to teach mostly phonics. Also Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results suggest that reading instruction has been less effective since then.
“England’s synthetic phonics approach requires a too heavy emphasis on teaching about phonemes (sounds), and so minimises attention to other vital aspects of teaching reading. Our view is that the system doesn’t give teachers enough flexibility to do what they think is best for their pupils, nor to encourage pupils to enjoy reading.”
Comments are concerning. Here’s one from an educational psychologist:
Children were being drilled in phonics before they knew what a word looked like, then judged as “failing” if they could not recall or relate to this decontextualised methodology. Some children would mechanistically “blend” the sounds to form a word yet completely fail to make the connection between this and the natural sound of the word. Furthermore, I met a number of conscientious teachers who saw themselves judged as failing if some children were underperforming in phonics tests.
The study points to Canada and Norway where phonics along with lessons involving understanding text results in statistically significant gains.
Here are suggestions to get children excited about reading. They’re not in any particular order.
1. Create literature-rich classrooms that showcase books and characters.
What do the classroom walls look like? Do students see Pippi Longstocking and Paddington Bear? Is The Very Hungry Caterpillar inching around the room, or do they only view long and short vowels and phonics progress charts?
Visualizing some letters and sounds help children remember, but characters and pictures of book covers instill curiosity and make children excited about reading.
2. What’s the school library like?
Children need access to an abundance of reading material, books, magazines, comics, fiction, nonfiction, and comfortable places to sit and read. They also need real librarians.
Are books inclusive? Can children see themselves in a story? Can they learn about the differences and struggles that they and others face?
If school libraries are not magical places that excite children why would students see reading as important?
3. Let children choose books and reading material they want to read.
When reading becomes micromanaged and adults choose a child’s reading material, children have no opportunity to explore their interests.
The Nerdy Bookclub lists 5 reasons to let children choose their own reading material. Students read more and write better, and they feel empowered because reading is no longer a chore.
Trust children to find books they enjoy.
4. Include subject nonfiction and fiction.
One of the worst mistakes of NCLB, Race to the Top, and Common Core State Standards was the heavy focus on reading and math and the reduced attention to science, social studies, the arts, and history.
Young children like reading books about a variety of subjects, bugs, snakes, outer space, and other topics that include pictures that draw them in. They’re curious about how children live in other countries and history.
In other words, the school should make available a variety of reading materials.
5. Give children free time to read.
American linguist and educational researcher, Stephen Krashen describes how important free reading is for students.
Free Voluntary Reading (FVR), with no questions or book report requirements, improves reading, and it’s helpful to second language acquirers (Krashen, 1-17).
Sustained silent reading (SSR) or free reading where students and the teacher take time to read, should be a part of every school day.
He also highlights Extensive Reading, which calls for some summarizing of what was read (2).
Free reading helps children with fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and writing.
6. Audiobooks help children with reading difficulties.
For students who have difficulty with reading, audiobooks can be helpful.
Students might qualify for Bookshare.
Learning Ally is a popular program.
7. Are children given opportunities to talk?
Most children love to talk. Talking and hearing the sounds in words helps with language starting from an early age.
Putting on plays is a way to give children the stage. Talking in front of others builds confidence.
8. Reading is its own reward.
Rewards for reading make it a chore. If the reader develops interest (internal motivation), reading is its own reward.
9. Throw out reading logs!
Telling students they must read for 30 minutes for homework makes reading a chore.
Better to encourage students to read something they’re interested in that they choose to read and ask them to journal or tell about it the next day.
10. Read to and with children.
Students love to be read to, even in middle and high school. This develops listening skills and makes for interesting discussions.
If young children want to hear the same book read repeatedly, that’s fine too.
It’s imperative to include rich literature in a child’s life and to include reading instruction that ignites a child’s interest in reading.
What are other ways teachers can incorporate literature with phonics instruction and excite children about literature?
Krashen, S.D. (2004). The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.