How is my child's reading going to get better
if I'm doing the reading?
Listening comprehension feeds
reading comprehension. Sounds complicated, right? So let’s make it simple.
We’ll use the most frequently used word in the English language: the.
I often ask my lecture audiences if there is anyone present
who thinks this little three-letter word is a difficult
word to understand, and out of three hundred people I’ll get about
five who raise their hands—amid
snickers from the rest.
I then ask those who didn’t raise their hands “to pretend I am a Russian exchange student living in your home. It’s also important to know there is no equivalent word in Russian for ‘the,’ as we use it. Indeed, many languages don’t have such articles—Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Polish, Punjabi, Croatian, and Vietnamese.
“Now, as the Russian exchange student, I’ve been living in your home and listening
to you and your family for three weeks when one day I come to you and say, ‘Don’t
understand word you use over and over. What mean word “the”?'"
How would you begin to explain the meaning of the word to this person? No one ever volunteers to explain it, and everyone laughs in embarrassment. Explaining this simple word turns out to be pretty difficult. Nevertheless, we do know how to use it. And you knew it when you showed up for kindergarten.
How did you learn it? One morning when you were three years old, did your mother take you into the kitchen, sit you down at the table with a little workbook, and say, “‘The’ is a definite article. It comes before nouns. Now take your green crayon and underline all the definite articles on the page”? Of course not.
We learned the meaning of this tiny but complex word by hearing it. In
fact, we heard it three ways:
We heard it over and over and over (immersion).
We heard it being used by
superheroes—Mom, Dad, brother and sister (role models).
We heard it in a meaningful
context—the cookie, the nap, the crayons, and
Whenever an adult reads to a child, three important things are happening simultaneously and painlessly: (1) a pleasure-connection is being made between child and book; (2) both parent and child are learning something from the book they’re sharing (double learning); and (3) the adult is pouring sounds and syllables called words into the child’s ear.
Inside the ear these words collect in a reservoir called the listening vocabulary. Eventually, if you pour enough words into it, the reservoir starts to overflow—pouring words into the speaking vocabulary, reading vocabulary, and writing vocabulary. And all have their origin in the listening vocabulary.
The research on oral versus reading comprehension certifies this concept, and offers a sobering note about those children who enter school with small vocabularies. Where you might expect school to narrow the gap between children with small oral vocabularies versus those with larger, the reverse is true: the gap widens instead of narrowing.3
The reason for this is twofold: 1) Since children in the early grades are reading only words most of them already know (the "decodable text" decreed by Reading First), neither the slow nor the advanced child is meeting many new words in class; and 2) The students' only exposure to new or advanced language, therefore, would have to be via parents, peers, teachers, and television. While there's a shortage of new words in school, at home the advantaged child is more likely to be read to from advanced books, to be exposed to educational television, and to be engaged in meaningful conversation for longer periods of time. The child with the smaller vocabulary ends up hearing the same routine words at home.
To make matters worse, the advantaged child is more apt to be in a school
that recognizes the advantages of reading aloud and will hear even more new
words. In Duke's study of 20 first-grade classes (ten urban, ten suburban)
seven out of the 10 suburban classes were read chapter books while only 2 of
the 10 urban classes experienced chapter books.4 Thus the children
with the smallest vocabularies were exposed to the fewest words and the least
complex sentences and thus the gap widens. Another factor
is "summer slump,"
explained on here at SLUMP.
Narrowing the reading achievement gap, a noble objective in No Child Left
Behind and Reading First, depends entirely on bridging the vocabulary gap (see
Web Update below). The most efficient way to do that is to tap into the 7,800
hours the child spends at home. Imagine the impact if even half the parents
of at-risk children were reading to them from library books, beginning at infancy
(or listening to books on tape if family literacy is a problem). A second way,
though not as efficient, would be for the classroom teacher to read aloud from
richer literature, at least richer than the "decodable" text in class. Children's
books, even good picture books, are much richer than ordinary home or classroom
conversation, as shown in Chapter Five here.
From "Schools Slow in Closing Gaps Between Races" by
Sam Dillon, The New York Times, p.1, Nov. 20, 2006:
"Now, as Congress prepares to consider
reauthorizing [NCLB] next year, researchers and a half-dozen recent
studies, including three issued last week, are reporting little progress
toward that goal. Slight gains have been seen for some grade levels.
concerted efforts by educators, the test-score gaps are so large
that, on average, African-American and Hispanic students in high
school can read and do arithmetic at only the average level of
whites in junior high school."
Is there something I could buy that would
help my child read better?
Since parents often think there are quick fixes they
can buy, some kind of kit or phonics game to help a child do better
at school, years ago I began asking my associates, “What did you have in your home as a child that helped you become a reader? Things your folks had to buy.” Besides the library card they all named, which is free, their responses form what I call the “Three B’s,” an inexpensive “reading kit” that
nearly all parents can afford.
The first B is Books: Ownership of a book, with the child’s name inscribed inside, a book that doesn’t have to be returned to the library or even shared with siblings. Chapter ? here shows the clear connection between book ownership and access and reading achievement.
The second B is Book Basket (or magazine rack)—placed where it can be used most often. There is probably more reading done in the bathrooms of America than all the libraries and classrooms combined. Put a book basket in there, stocked with books, magazines, and newspapers.
Put another book basket on or near the kitchen table. All those newspaper coin boxes aren’t standing in front of fast-food restaurants as decorations. If you sit in your car in the parking lot and watch who uses those coin boxes, invariably it’s the person who’s eating alone. I’m convinced most human beings want or need to read when they’re eating alone. And with more and more children eating at least one daily meal alone, the kitchen is a prime spot for recreational reading. If there’s a book on the table, they’ll read it—unless, of course, you’re foolish enough to have a television in your kitchen, as do 58 percent of parents in America.5
study of twenty-one classes of kindergartners showed children with the most interest in reading came from homes where books and print were spread throughout the house, not just in one or two places.6
And the third B is Bed Lamp: Does your child have a bed lamp
or reading light? If not, and you wish to raise a reader, the first order of
business is to go out and buy one. Install it, and say to your child: “Tyler,
we think you’re old enough now to stay up later at night and read in bed like
Mom and Dad. So we bought this little lamp and we’re going to leave it on an
extra fifteen minutes (or longer, depending on the age of the child) if you
want to read in bed. On the other hand, if you don’t want to read—that’s okay,
too. We’ll just turn off the light at the same old time.” Most children will
do anything in order to stay up later—even read.
Where does that leave the parent who has rushed out to buy
all those Baby Einstein "educational" videos? Check out the Einsteinupdate here.
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