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Teaching children to read

Developing a Lifelong Reader

by Susan B. Neuman, Ed.D
When he was four years old, Christopher made up a special reading and writing game. Inventing a variation of a familiar family routine, he challenged his mother to do something before he could say: A, B, C. His mother's basic format had gone something along the lines of: "Get in your jammies before I say A, B, C," or "Brush your teeth before I say A, B, C." One day, while he was getting ready for bed, Christopher decided to turn the tables on his mother. He said to her, "See if you can say A, B, C, before I get in bed." Then, clearly enjoying this game, he went on to say, "see if you can say A, B, C, D before I get in bed."

The next day, while his mother was making dinner, Christopher sat at the table and began to write the letters in large print: A, B, C, D. He wrote them once, then twice, then peppered the paper with these letters in many directions. Delighted with his attempts, he showed his mother and said, "I did it! See the letters? I wrote them all by myself."

For many children, the beginnings of reading and writing appear just like this as they engage others in conversations about letters, words, or labels. Christopher's game—his attempts to say and write letters—may not look like conventional reading and writing behaviors to many adults. But this kind of make-believe writing and reading that children bring into their play can tell us a great deal about how and when early literacy begins.

When Reading "Clicks" With Children

There is no magical age when reading appears to "click." Rather, the "click" actually belies a continuous process of gathering and assembling knowledge about language and print, both casually and systematically. Children have listened to stories, to conversations between others, and playfully engaged in rhymes, songs, and word plays. They've looked at signs in their environment, and have "read" their favorite cereal boxes at the grocery store.

Sometimes, it's through a game like Christopher's. Other times, it's by learning how to write their name. And sometimes, it's through conveying a special message to their parents or grandparents, like "I love you." But however it happens, something in the brain begins to process the idea—an understanding—that there is a connection between letters and sounds. From there on out, when they discover the alphabetic principle—that letters represent speech sounds—is when they begin to understand that letters and sounds relate, and that changes in letters can affect changes in sounds and in the structure and meanings of words.

Once children start to make these connections, they can begin to read some very simple stories. They'll also learn how to move from identifying or sounding out words letter by letter, to recognizing them instantly and connecting them to the smooth, fluid motion of reading sentences. Jeanne Chall, well-known expert in reading, described this process as moving from "glued to print" to "reading with fluency."

How to Keep the Reading Momentum Going

How do you keep the momentum going to help your child become a highly skilled reader? While children need the steady and consistent guidance from adults that comes with formal schooling, it is amazing how a child's experiences—being read to, seeing adults read, and playing—support learning. In fact, it is remarkable how much children can learn, and how hard some children will work to break the code when they see the rewards of reading and are motivated to become readers themselves.

Think of yourself as a loving, supportive coach and guide, not as a back-up teacher, or a homework helper. And try not to pressure, or ask your child to "perform" before others.

The best strategy is to show through your enthusiasm and example, just how exciting it is to read. You, better than anyone else in the world, can help your child understand why reading matters. Take him to get a library card. Visit the local library regularly, and get to know the children's librarian. While you're at the library or bookstore, help your child figure out what books are appropriate for his interests and skill level. Model what you do in choosing a book that you like, and watch your child's enthusiasm soar. By sharing your love of books, by helping him find something wonderful to read, by cheering on his efforts to learn, you'll make it clear that reading matters to you and will make you proud of him.

But of course, the single most important thing you can do to help when reading "clicks" is to show him the next step. Continue to read more challenging books to him. Show him what fluent reading looks like. Help him build on his interests by talking and writing about his favorite books. And by continuing this exciting journey in print, you will be helping him find the path to a rich and rewarding lifetime of reading.  
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Meet Our Expert
Susan B. Neuman, Ed.D.
Professor, Educational Studies University of Michigan
Susan B. Neuman is a professor in educational studies specializing in early literacy development. She is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, where she established the Early Reading First program, developed the Early Childhood Educator Professional Development Program, and was responsible for all activities in Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Act.

She has directed the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement (CIERA) and currently directs the Michigan Research Program on Ready to Learn. Her research and teaching interests include early childhood policy, curriculum, and early reading instruction (pre-k through third grade) for children who live in poverty.

Ms. Neuman has written over 100 articles, and authored and edited 11 books, including Changing the Odds for Children at Risk; Educating the Other America; Multimedia and Literacy Development; Preparing Teachers for the Early Childhood Classroom: Proven Models and Key Principles; and The Handbook of Early Literacy Research (Volumes1-3).

You can find out more on Susan Neuman's website.
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Book Cover Image. Title: Changing the Odds for Children at Risk:  Seven Essential Principles of Educational Programs that Break the Cycle of Poverty, Author: by Susan B. Neuman, Susan B. Neuman

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