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Reading, Writing, and Your First Grader
PARENTS: Before we present a selection of poems and stories for your child, we want to address you directly. This section, Reading, Writing, and Your First Grader, is intended to help you understand how children are--or should be--taught to read and write in a good first-grade classroom, and to suggest a few ways that you can help at home. The first section below, Teaching Children to Read: The Need for a Balanced Approach, summarizes a discussion presented in What Your Kindergartner Needs to Know. If you have already read this, then you may wish to skip ahead to page 5 and begin with the section Goals for Reading and Writing: From Kindergarten to First Grade.
Teaching Children to Read: The Need for a Balanced Approach
Everyone agrees that children should learn to read. But not everyone agrees how to achieve that goal. Many studies have demonstrated, however, that while fashions come and go in education, pulling schools toward one extreme or another, there is a reasonable middle ground that is best for children.
This middle ground balances two approaches that some educators mistakenly see as mutually exclusive. The first approach emphasizes the systematic teaching of the "nuts and bolts" of written language: phonics and decoding skills (turning written letters into spoken sounds), spelling, handwriting, punctuation, grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraph form, and other rules and conventions. The second approach emphasizes the need for children to be nourished on a rich diet of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. It focuses attention on the meanings and messages conveyed by written words, and insists that children be given frequent opportunities to use language in creative and expressive ways.
Schools need to embrace both of these approaches. In particular, at the time of this writing, many elementary schools need to pay much more attention to the "nuts and bolts": they need to take steps to balance a worthwhile emphasis on literature and creative expression with an equally necessary emphasis on the basic how-to skills of reading and writing.
Learning to Read and Write
To learn to read is to learn to understand and use our language, specifically our written language. Learning to read is not like learning to speak. While speech seems to come naturally, reading is a very different story. It is not enough just to see or hear others reading. Learning to read takes effort and instruction, because reading is not a natural process. Our written language is not a natural thing--it is an artificial code. There is no natural reason why when you see this mark--A--you should hear in your mind a sound that rhymes with "day." But you do, because you have learned the code. A few children seem to figure out this code for themselves, but most children need organized, systematic, direct instruction in how to decode the words on the page, that is, to turn the written symbols, the letters, into the speech sounds they represent.
The key to helping children unlock the code of our written language is to help them understand the relationships between individual letters, and combinations of letters, and the sounds they make. True, sometimes these relationships seem odd: consider, for example, the different sounds of the letters "ough" in "though" and "enough." Despite these occasional oddities, there is a logic to the written English alphabet: its basic symbols, the letters, represent the basic speech sounds, or phonemes, of our spoken language. The relationships between letters and sounds exhibit many regular patterns, as in, for example, "cat," "hat," "sat," "mat," "fat," "rat."
So, part of learning to read means learning the predictable letter-sound patterns in written words. Learning these letter-sound patterns enables a child who confronts a page of print to decode the written words into the sounds of spoken language they represent. The other side of the coin here is learning the basic skills of writing, which enable a child who faces a blank page to encode the sounds of spoken language by putting on paper the corresponding written letters to form words, and by following other conventions of writing (such as capitalization and punctuation) that allow us to get across our meanings, even when the person to whom we are communicating is not present before us.
All this talk about decoding and encoding may sound very mechanical and a little intimidating. It should be kept in mind that instruction in decoding and encoding is all in the service of meaning and understanding. If children are to communicate their ideas, thoughts, and desires in writing, as well as to understand what others are saying in print--whether it's a traffic sign, a movie poster, a letter from a relative, or a story by Dr. Seuss or Beverly Cleary--then they need to have the tools to encode and decode written English.
Goals for Reading and Writing: From Kindergarten to First Grade
In What Your Kindergartner Needs to Know, we stated that a reasonable goal for instruction in kindergarten is to have all children beginning to read and write on their own by the end of the kindergarten year. By this we meant that kindergartners should:
become comfortably familiar with the letters of the alphabet so that they can readily recognize and name the letters.
develop a deliberate and conscious awareness of some of the sounds of oral language, and begin to make explicit connections between spoken sounds and printed letters.
print both uppercase and lowercase letters with some proficiency, and write using some phonetic spelling (that is, spelling based on what they have learned so far about how words sound, for example, "bot" for "boat").
be comfortable reading simple words they can sound out, as well as a few common "sight words," words that occur very often in writing but do not conform to the usual letter-sound patterns, such as "the," "an," "of," etc.
A reasonable goal for first grade is for children to become independent readers and writers--which, of course, doesn't mean that they ought to be able to read any book in the library or write a polished, perfectly spelled essay. By the end of the year, however, it is reasonable to expect that, with only limited assistance, first graders will read books appropriate to beginning readers and express themselves comfortably and legibly in writing.
What Does a Good First-Grade Program Do?
A good first-grade program can help children become independent readers and writers by taking a balanced approach that emphasizes both meaning and decoding. In a good first-grade class, children will be provided many opportunities to communicate and express themselves in speech and writing. As the year advances, they will be presented with appropriate "beginner books" and other print materials to read, with some assistance as needed, but with the goal of reading independently. They will continue to listen to interesting poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and will be asked to talk about them and respond to them in thoughtful ways. Such literature gives children insight into a world of meaning expressed in words that they may not be able to read entirely on their own, but that they understand when the words are read aloud and discussed with an adult.
But for children to learn to read, it's not enough just to have good books read aloud to them. Listening to books does help children acquire a sense of what makes up a story, and motivates them to want to read. But it will not teach them how to read the words on the page. For that, children need repeated practice in working with letters and sounds in order to develop a good initial understanding of how language works. This does not mean mindless drill; rather, it means providing repeated and varied opportunities for children to work and play with letters and sounds.
There are many ways for a school to put together a good first-grade program in reading and writing, and many good materials for schools to use. Whatever the local approach or materials, any good first-grade program will do much of the following:
A good first-grade program helps children develop their oral language, including speaking and listening. Children continue to hear good literature, both fiction and nonfiction, read aloud, often with the written text displayed so they can "follow along." They are asked to talk about books that have been read to them, to ask and answer questions, and sometimes to retell or summarize the story.
A good first-grade program continues the practice begun in kindergarten of explicitly and systematically developing children's phonemic awareness, that is, the understanding that the sounds of a word can be thought of as a string of smaller, individual sounds. Children participate in a variety of listening and speaking activities designed to help them recognize and compare sounds that make up words. For example, they may be asked to listen to a word, such as "take," then to "say it again but start with mmm" ("make"); "say it again but start with rrr" ("rake"). Or they may be asked which word has the short a sound as in "apple": "mat" or "mate"? Which word has the long o sound as in "hope": "mop" or "mope"?
In first grade, in addition to developing phonemic awareness through listening and speaking activities, children should consistently practice associating specific sounds with particular written letters and combinations of letters. They should be given regular opportunities to "sound out," read, and write words that correspond to the letter-sound patterns they have been taught. Parents take note: Some schools discourage children from sounding out words and urge them instead to "guess" the words based on "clues" from pictures or what's going on in the story. This is a serious mistake. Children need to learn a systematic, reliable way to figure out words they don't know, and this can come only from giving them explicit instruction in the code of our written language. It is important that this instruction be systematically organized to make explicit the letter-sound patterns and present them in a way that builds logically and sequentially, not in a haphazard or occasional fashion. Phonics instruction is most effective when it is regular, if not daily, with one skill building on another and with plenty of practice and review.
As children master individual letter-sound patterns and become able to sound out words, a good program provides phonetically controlled reading materials. These are simple stories written in a controlled vocabulary that corresponds to the letter-sound patterns that a child has been taught in preparation for reading the story. For example, after being taught how a silent "e" at the end of a word can make a vowel long, a child might read a story about how "Jake made a cake." While such stories are of course not great literature, they are very helpful in teaching children to read, especially in providing the early and tremendously satisfying experience of being able "to read it all by myself." In preparation for reading these stories, children also need to add to their stock of sight words, such as "of," "was," "do," "the."
Once children have demonstrated some success with phonetically controlled reading materials, they should be introduced to and asked to read, with occasional assistance, stories that are not phonetically controlled but are written for beginning readers, such as Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books or Peggy Parish's Amelia Bedelia books. (See below, pages 13-14, for more titles of books for beginning readers.)
A good first-grade program provides regular handwriting practice through which children refine letter size and legibility, and learn to make appropriate use of the space on a page to present written information. (See charts, pages 8 and 9.)
A good program introduces a few conventions and rules of capitalization, punctuation, and spelling. (You can reinforce some basic rules by reading aloud the information in the box on page 10, and by gently reminding your child of these rules when she writes.)
A good first-grade program provides a classroom environment in which children are surrounded by written language that is meaningful to them, such as posters with the children's names and birthdays, name labels on desks or storage cubbies, and word labels on objects in the classroom ("door," "blackboard," "map," etc.). A good program recognizes that reading and writing reinforce each other, and it provides children with many opportunities to practice writing. Learning to read may be coordinated with learning to spell and write through regular dictation exercises in which the teacher calls out words that the children have practiced reading and asks the children to spell them (that is, correctly write the words, or sometimes short sentences, on paper). Other writing is more for purposes of communication or creativity, such as writing letters, descriptions, short stories, poems, captions to pictures, and the like. First graders will often want to say more than they can write correctly, so in some cases the children should be encouraged to use phonetic spelling, that is, "to spell it the way they think it sounds" (so that a child may write, for example, "bot" for "boat"). This occasional practice of phonetic spelling is beneficial for first graders because it engages them in actively thinking about the sounds of words and how they are represented, and can make them more interested in writing and more willing to put their thoughts on paper. Of course, children need regular practice with conventional, correct spellings as well.
That, in brief, describes some of what a good first-grade program will do to help children achieve the goal of becoming independent readers and writers. Some children will surpass this goal; others may come close but not quite achieve it. But every child should receive appropriate instruction, materials, and support, and should be guided and encouraged to do his or her best to meet the goal. If a child is having difficulty, a school should not rationalize his difficulty by saying that the child is "not developmentally ready." You do not wait for readiness to happen. Rather, the child who is less ready should be given even more support, encouragement, and practice in the areas posing difficulty.
What about the children who surpass the goals for first grade? Children who surpass the goals should of course not be held back. There will always be, as proud parents are delighted to report, a few first graders, and even kindergartners, who are "reading everything they can get their hands on," even books like Charlotte's Web and Little House on the Prairie. These few children who are reading dramatically beyond grade level should be encouraged, and their appetite for books should be fed with appropriately challenging material. At the same time, they can still benefit from explicit, systematic instruction in letter-sound correspondences, because such instruction