Teaching Reading Skills to Young Children

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Most of my experience and memory with writing and writing skills education comes from high school and college—both as a student and later as an instructor—but I recently had a chance to sit down with Jennifer, a primary school educator who had lots of experience teaching reading skills to young children. After all, you have to learn to read before you can learn to write—although I was about to discover from Jennifer that a lot of kids learn to read from their own writing.

Especially since starting this blog, I’ve had a heightened interest in learning about teaching reading and writing to different situations and groups. Note, that, this particular teacher was in a program that guaranteed she was teaching no more than 6 children at any one time. So just keep this in mind so I don’t have to imagine a bunch of parents go their kids’ teachers and demanding their child gets extended one-on-one instruction with a handful of different methodologies.

On the other hand, Jennifer also explained that many of the most popular methods she uses come from the Four-Blocks Literacy Model, which can be used in classroom settings even when the students haven’t been sorted by ability level. In fact, the model explicitly acknowledges the fact and basically starts from the premise that different kids learn differently. By leveraging the “four blocks,” students are exposed to each of the different methodologies and get what they can from them, while also ensuring that every student is also exposed to their own personal learning style and strengths. So what are the four blocks?


The Words Block and Rote Memorization

It’s easy to think that the best method for learning to read focuses on holistic strategies and nifty tips that help the student learn words and concepts all at once. Some reading and writing skills are like this, but it’s also true that there’s a place for rote memorization and all but over-learning a certain number of very commonly used words. In fact, there’s a list of about 100 words that make up about 50% of all printed content. Learning this core list of words, often by rote memory or otherwise, then allows the student to devote more of their concentration when reading toward learning and sounding out new words. Many school-age children will pick up somewhere around a handful to a dozen or more new words per day.

Time is also increasingly devoted to further exploration of working with words. Many word-learning methodologies may be incorporated into this literacy block. Letter tiles can be used to work through different word constructions and help children who tend to leave off suffixes. Jennifer told me that “a lot of kids have a hard time with word endings, especially I-N-G.” Color overlays are another great tool according to Jennifer and can be used to help the student differentiate and focus on different aspects of the word and/or words within a sentence. Using rhymes is another popular approach.


The Writing Block

Studies suggest that a little more than half of children first learn to read their own writing. First by learning the shapes and encoding the letters and later by writing whole words, sentences, and passages, the student learns how to read by writing the words out. But this process can be as beneficial for phonetic learners as visual learners, and arguably even more so. By sounding out words as the child also writes them, they get immediate feedback between the visual and auditory aspects of language acquisition.

The teacher will also typically model this for the students by writing something out for the students. This could be something the teacher wants the students to learn, thereby double-dipping on the educational value, but he or she might also write about something personal to help build rapport, strong relationships, and to get the students interested in the day’s lesson. Either way, there’s often a follow-up discussion. Then, at some point later in the day or lesson, the students are given their own opportunity to write about something they want to tell their teacher or fellow classmates.


Self-Selected Reading Block

Students learn best when they’re interested in what they’re learning. Certainly, reading is no exception. This block includes a discussion of the student’s interests, short samples from a wide variety of books, and a list of reading options that the child can choose from. Not only do children read best when they’re interested in what they’re reading, but they’re also able to read more. And so to add another platitude, the more a child reads, the better he or she becomes at reading.

Plenty of parents know the experience of witnessing their child’s general resistance to reading and especially taking on full-length books until their friends start reading and talking about Harry Potter or whenever young adult book is most popular at the time. Thus, while there are plenty of short-term gains that result from self-selected reading, the larger goal is to encourage the person to become a lifelong love of reading.


Guided Reading Block

This is the toughest one to explain and to practice, especially for older teachers who are more accustomed to teaching in groups divided by ability level. Guided reading involves the teacher going through a passage with the classroom and discussing its content. The goal is to help students learn the meaning created and interpreted through the printed word. This is where students learn that reading and writing are about more than just reciting sounds and symbols.

The process first involves pre-reading activity and/or discussion. Here the teacher introduces prior knowledge that can help students understand what they’re about to read. Introducing the topic and asking the students to make predictions about what the text will say can all be part of this pre-reading activity. Next, the students read the passage, followed by a post-reading discussion and/or having the students respond to the reading with their own writing. And while the point of this block is to introduce the idea that reading conveys meaning and concepts, the primary goal and focus of this block is still about teaching the students how to read, rather than on what they’re reading.

Of course, the Four-Block Literacy Model isn’t the only method for teaching children how to read, but it also borrows and synthesizes several other approaches. Likewise, many effective reading and writing teachers will use many of the specific suggestions and blocks, while substituting some of their own pedagogical acumen and experience.