The Building Blocks of Reading - Y Magazine
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The Building Blocks of Reading

By Noelle Barker and Stephanie Tripp

Summer 1997 The building blocks of reading

Ray Reutzel was a newly graduated education major when he became a kindergarten teacher at Washington Elementary in Laramie, Wyo. He had the dream of every young educator: He wanted to make a difference. He wanted to influence his students and make his mark in the education system. With his newly acquired teaching skills, he was going to try to be the best teacher he could. He was prepared to teach the basics–math, social studies, language arts, and science. But what about reading?

Within his first week of teaching, Reutzel realized that he did not have the skills to effectively teach reading. Years of college education had not given him the necessary abilities to teach reading to struggling students nor to involve parents in this learning process. This realization was a difficult fact for Reutzel to face.

For four years, he continued to teach elementary school, including third grade and sixth grade. As he continued to teach reading and observed the struggles of others, he became determined to obtain master’s and doctoral degrees in hopes of educating future teachers in their abilities to teach children reading.

Reutzel went back to school and taught education at the University of Wyoming, Texas A & M at Stephenville, and Weber State University before joining the BYU faculty in 1985. At BYU, he has joined several other reading experts to try to remedy reading problems in homes and schools.

In 20 years as a teacher, professor, and reading expert, Reutzel has found that reading is a “complex phenomenon” that affects everyone from educators to students to parents.

The deficiencies that Reutzel noticed in the educational system when he began teaching, including unprepared teachers and uninvolved parents, are the same deficiencies the federal government outlined 12 years ago when researchers published Becoming a Nation of Readers.

The report addressed the need for improvement in all areas of reading instruction. It identified problems with low parental involvement and reported that the more parents were involved before and during school, the more children were able to learn reading and succeed. The report also found that poor textbooks and ill-prepared teachers were significant problems in the nation’s schools.

These problems startled researchers because of the increased need to be literate. In the 19th century, much of the population could be successful without knowing how to read, says Elizabeth Wahlquist, a BYU professor of English who specializes in adolescent literature. Today, however, no one can afford to be illiterate.

“Our world takes a better reader,” she says. “The level at which we need to read has gone up, and we’re not all at the necessary level where we need to be to function in this modern world.”

Not surprisingly, the country has awakened to the need for improvement in both homes and schools, and countless questions have been raised about these improvements. How can parents aid in preparing children for reading? How can parents be encouraged to get involved? What is the best way to teach reading in schools? How can the United States become a nation of readers?

A national effort began to address these concerns. In 1990, President George Bush and governors all over the United States adopted eight National Education Goals to be accomplished by the year 2000. One of these goals stated that schools will have access to teaching programs to continually improve their education efforts. Another challenged every school to promote increased parental involvement.

Researchers believed, as Reutzel had felt years earlier as an elementary school teacher, that increases in parental involvement and quality school instruction were necessary to effectively help children learn how to read.

Since these weak links in children’s education have been identified, the question now facing parents and educators is how to make the necessary changes to meet children’s literacy needs.

BYU researchers, like Reutzel, now a professor of teacher education, have spent years studying reading and the most effective ways to teach it. They may differ in some approaches and techniques, but they all agree on one thing: Parental involvement is critical to reading education.

According to a Reading Literacy Study in 1991, fourth-grade average reading scores were 17 points above the national average when parental involvement was high. In contrast, when parental involvement was low, reading scores were 26 points below the national average.

“When there is parental involvement, children are always advantaged. When there isn’t, the schools aren’t able to make up the difference,” says Reutzel.

BYU reading experts offer several suggestions for parents on how they can enhance their child’s reading abilities. From becoming a role model to reading aloud with children to limiting distractions to becoming involved in the schools, there is much parents can do to enhance their children’s reading ability and opportunity for success in life.

Being a Role Model

Serving as a role model for children is one way for a parent to set the stage for a child’s education.

“Sometimes I think we forget the power of a model,” says Brad Wilcox, an assistant professor of teacher education at BYU. Wilcox credits much of his own reading and writing success to the example his parents and teachers set for him. “It’s a lot easier to encourage children to read and write if you are doing it yourself.”

Wilcox tells of a crossing guard named Marilynn at his children’s school who he believes is a wonderful example of literacy.

“She is always reading books and magazines or writing in her journal when the children come to cross,” Wilcox says. “These children she helps across the street may see a better model of literacy from their crossing guard than they do from their teachers and parents.”

Even for parents who personally struggle with reading, it is important to serve as role models for their children. “The children have to see their parents reading their John Grisham books, completely enraptured by them,” Reutzel says.

Reading to Children

The next step for parents wanting to develop a child’s literacy skills is to sit and read aloud with the child. Reutzel recommends that parents get a copy of Helping Your Child Learn to Read, a book published by the U.S. Department of Education, which says, “There is no more important activity for preparing your child to succeed as a reader than reading aloud together.”

“There is a modeling factor that comes through parents reading to their children,” Reutzel says. “Children get to hear if their parents are literate and what it means to be a good reader.”

Helping Your Child Learn to Read suggests that parents try to read with their children at least once a day at a regular time. “Taking the time to read with your children on a regular basis sends an important message: Reading is worthwhile.”

Many parents wonder, however, when they should begin reading to their child. Reutzel says there is no ideal age to start. “My own approach is as soon as children are alert enough and old enough that you can cuddle them and keep their heads upright, that’s when you can start reading books to them.”

Helping Your Child Learn to Read offers several reading techniques that can be used as the child develops from infancy to adolescence when children are able to read on their own. First, it suggests reading to the child as a baby because babies love to listen to the human voice. Next, parents should read books that repeat words and rhyme. “Repetition makes books predictable, and young readers love knowing what comes next.”

As part of repetition, Reutzel suggests parents give children the opportunity to finish common phrases in stories. For example, if a parent asks what the big, bad wolf says, a child will typically reply, “Little pig, little pig, let me in.” According to Reutzel, this technique helps children develop a concept of language.

Reutzel also speaks of children’s ability to memorize stories as they are repeated. “Why do you think children ask parents to reread the same book five billion times until the parents are sick of it?” This common occurrence is fine, he says, because children first need to learn about reading through whole structures.

J. Lloyd Eldredge, a professor of teacher education, agrees with Reutzel. “Children who have these kinds of experiences can go back and read the stories without you,” he says.

In this process of reading development, there are cautions that parents should be aware of when selecting books. “Parents should read books to children that are challenging intellectually but not above their emotional level,” Reutzel says. Children are typically turned off by poetry and literature that doesn’t relate to their lives.

Making Reading a Physical Activity

The methods parents use to read to their children can make a difference in the lessons children learn. “There are advantages to reading aloud to your children, and there are limitations on what you can expect that to accomplish for children,” Reutzel says. At the very least, though, when a parent reads to the child, the child will see the parent reading and will enjoy the time together.

Reading to children also strength-ens parent-child relationships, says Wahlquist. “Sitting on their parent’s lap creates a bond. This is a pleasant time, a time the child enjoys because someone they like pays attention to them and doesn’t tell them they’re too busy.”

Parents can do more than just read to their child, however. If parents make reading a physical activity, it will be reinforced mentally too. There are several benefits associated with parents who follow the text with their fingers. “Children will learn that print goes from left to right, top to bottom; they begin to see the spaces between the letters,” says Eldredge, a former elementary school teacher.

Reutzel says that when parents point to the print in a book, the children learn that the story is coming from the words and not from the pictures or the parents’ imagination.

“Children sometimes think the book is a prop used by the parents to act like a reader unless the parents are showing them very explicitly that the story is coming from those squiggles on the page,” he says.

With this knowledge, children begin to notice that certain words are repeated; this process sets the stage for word recognition and eventual reading. The repetition of 220 words out of the more than 750,000 words in the English language comprises two-thirds of all print, Eldredge says. “Children begin to recognize it, and they begin to learn words in context.”

Creating an Environment

Beyond reading to children, parents can create environments that encourage reading. First, parents should have books around and let the children handle them. Parents often buy a children’s book for $20, and, because they don’t want the child to ruin it, they put it up where the child can’t reach it, Reutzel says.

Wahlquist believes it is important for children to handle books and develop a love for them through this association. “We had a children’s writer visiting BYU once who said he wanted to be known as a writer of ‘dirty’ books. ‘I want to go to the library and see if my books have wrinkled pages with jam and peanut butter on them. Then I know that someone has loved them so much they couldn’t leave them alone.'”

Parents can also create play situations that promote literacy. “You can set up a kitchen for your children to play in and introduce a phone with a little message board by it and a telephone book,” Reutzel says.

Environmental reading, like reading cereal boxes, can be used while grocery shopping or having a child look for the nearest McDonald’s for lunch.

“There are all kinds of things you can introduce into environments that make children focus on literacy,” Reutzel says.

Other suggestions include taking children to the library where they can sign up for their own library card and giving books as presents.

Helping Older Children

Although it is important to expose children to reading while they are young, parents need to continue that encouragement as children grow and improve their literacy skills. Helping Your Child Learn to Read suggests that parents adapt many of the same learning principles for older children as they use with younger children.

Reutzel suggests that parents continue to be active in their adolescents’ literacy development by reading with their children, even if it is just reading a newspaper article at the breakfast table.

He also recommends that parents discuss books with their children and encourages parents to provide incentives for reading books in the home.

Homes should be rich with various reading materials, including newspapers, magazines, encyclopedias, and books ranging from the classics to Nancy Drew mysteries. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 1994 Reading Report Card for the Nation and the States, which assessed the reading proficiency of 27,400 students, children who reported having more types of reading materials in their homes also had higher average reading proficiencies.

With the broader scope of reading materials available to children, parents should encourage reading for the fun of it and as a free-time activity.

“Children need something that just takes them out of thinking about anything, because they have been thinking all day,” Wahlquist says.

The NAEP report card found that students who frequently read for fun on their own time also have higher average proficiencies.

Giving Children a Choice

In selecting what to read, parents should give children a choice. “Children like reading better when you give them the choice of what to read,” says Wahlquist, who taught English at the junior high level before coming to BYU.

Wahlquist believes that giving children the freedom to choose what to read eases the stages of reading that everyone naturally goes through, whether they recognize it or not. “You read first for pure escape, then you gradually move into a kind of identification with the characters,” she says. The highest stage of reading is the aesthetic stage, at which point the reader can discuss the character’s point of view as well as describe the elements of literature.

If parents have their child read classics such as The Scarlet Letter or Moby Dick before the child has reached the aesthetic stage, then it is likely that the child will not grasp the full meaning of what they are reading. At the same time, parents risk turning their child off to similar pieces of literature in the future because the child has had a negative experience with literature that is above their comprehension level.

“Some parents are in such a hurry to get their children to the classics, and the children never like them,” Wahlquist says. “If children have read other books along the way, they would eventually reach the stage where they would enjoy the classics.”

Wahlquist firmly believes that to get youth to the ideal aesthetic stage, they need to first read books that have been specifically written for them, like the Sweet Valley High series or books written by Judy Blume and similar authors.

“If you really want people to read, you’re not always going to insist that they read the greatest thing in the world. You’ve got to let them read what they’ll read,” Wahlquist says. “If they’re reading, it makes them better readers.”

Eliminating Reading Distractions

There is a major distraction for children and youth today that keeps them from reading for fun–the television. Often, instead of reading a book, children switch on the television or play video games as a source of entertainment.

Reutzel, in discussing the 1985 report, Becoming a Nation of Readers, says that children who watch more than 10 hours of television a week fall behind academically because they spend so much time in what is essentially a language-passive environment; they become receptors without any language interaction.

Public television advocates argue that educational children’s programming is the exception, and Reutzel admits that such programs can be useful. He is quick to add, however, that the value of educational programming is limited because the human interaction is significantly less than the one-on-one interaction between a child and an adult.

Speaking of programs such as “Reading Rainbow,” Reutzel says, “You can acquaint children with books, but you lose the human interaction where two human beings use language to communicate–that’s why we invented language.”

While educational programs can be helpful and not all television is bad, excessive television viewing can hinder a child’s education. The Becoming a Nation of Readers report indicated that the average elementary school child watches television 25 hours a week, with the average high school student viewing 28 hours. Reutzel points out that when you include all the time spent listening to music, watching videos, or playing video games, children spend nearly 40 hours a week in these language-passive activities.

“That’s a full-time job,” he says. “You don’t get smart spending your life that way.”

The 1994 NAEP study suggested that there was in fact a negative relationship between television viewing and reading achievement. Students who reported watching at least four hours of television daily displayed lower average reading scores than their peers who watched less television each day.

Reutzel believes one cause of illiteracy today, in addition to the breakdown of the family, is the television. “Children are not coming to school as well prepared as in decades past,” he says.

Parents can play an important role in guiding their children to select leisure activities that will not only be enjoyable, but will also serve as learning experiences. This role begins by turning off the television.

“Parents need to turn the tube off more and interact more as a family,” Reutzel says. “Too many parents are using television as a baby-sitter, and then they wonder why their children aren’t doing well in school.”

Getting Involved in Schools

Parents can play an active role in their child’s education by not only doing things in the home, but also involving themselves in the child’s immediate learning environment at school.

Studies in 1992 and 1993 documented the increased achievement of students whose parents are more involved in their schooling.

Reutzel stresses that parents need to spend time in classrooms and always attend parent-teacher conferences. “Volunteer time helps parents understand not only the classroom teacher, but also how their own child functions in the environment,” Reutzel says.

Grant Von Harrison, a professor of instructional psychology and technology who has been researching parental involvement in teaching reading for 25 years, has found that parents need to assume an active role in teaching their children to read.

He believes that parents can effectively teach their children to read if they are trained as tutors or given appropriate tutorial materials. “If parents tutor their children for 20 to 30 hours between 5 H and 6 H years of age, the children are virtually guaranteed to become good readers,” he says.

Harrison has authored home study courses, workshops, and tutor manuals to help in the teaching process. These aids focus on reading common sight words, producing letter sounds, blending letter sounds, decoding new words, reading fluently, and reading for meaning.

“Many children fail to master these basic reading skills in the primary grades unless they are taught by their parents,” Harrison says. “Without parental involvement, only about 10 percent of the children in our public schools are advanced in their reading ability.”

Harrison has also focused on training teachers to involve parents in the learning process. “With training and materials, these teachers consistently get over 80 percent of their parents to work with their children in specified ways,” he says.

In schools where teachers have received this training, first-grade teachers consistently report their students are reading better before Christmas than they typically do in the spring, Harrison says. Also, their oral reading rate is about twice the national average. Harrison attributes much of this success to the fact that many of the parents ensure their children truly master the critical skills associated with reading.

Learning about the Great Debate

Parents who spend that extra time becoming aware of the school environment may notice the great debate about methods and programs that teach children how to read.

Educators believe that the debate within the education system stems from biases. “Some people tend to be more liberal in their educating beliefs, and other people tend to be more conservative in their approaches,” Eldredge says.

However, this issue should not be a political matter and changes should be made, Reutzel says. “The fact is, you go into schools today, and they act like they did when I was in school. There are fundamental things that we just can’t get out of,” he says. “We need to get out of that kind of nonsense because we are dealing with people’s lives.”

In the past, schools often grouped children according to their reading proficiency. Typically, the students were broken into three groups–high, middle, and low level. Reutzel refers to these groups as eagles, robins, and buzzards.

“The bottom line is kids know where they are. They look around and say, ‘These kids are all buzzard readers; I must be one of them.’ You can’t hide that from a 6-year-old,” Reutzel says.

Reutzel is critical about ability grouping because the practice can have a negative influence on a child’s self-esteem and confidence in his or her reading abilities.

Round robin reading is another method schools have used where one child reads aloud while the other students follow along. The problem with round robin reading, according to Reutzel, is that children get distracted whether they are advanced or low-level readers. Sometimes, even the teachers get distracted.

“I remember one day when I was a third-grade teacher. I pointed to a kid to read. He was a slow reader and I fell asleep,” Reutzel says. “I thought then that there must be something wrong with this approach to teaching reading. If it’s putting me to sleep, what is it doing to the students? I think it’s a practice we need to do away with. We’ve got enough alternatives.”

Although there are many alterna-tives to round robin reading or ability grouping, there are ongoing, and sometimes heated, debates about which method is the best. Even BYU professors vary in their approaches to teaching children how to read. Techniques range from the whole language philosophy, where children are taught all elements of language simultaneously, to specific methods, such as phonics, where children are taught one skill at a time.

In the Nebo School District in central Utah, educators have implemented a program called Scholastic Literacy Place, a balanced reading approach in which Reutzel is one of the senior authors. “We teach everything together–language, science, and math,” says Shelley Gillies, a kindergarten teacher at Mapleton Elementary.

One technique used in Scholastic Literacy Place is the use of “big books”; the technique is known as the shared-book approach. The teacher uses a “big book” with an enlarged text to read to the students. It is used to replicate the experience a child would have if a parent were reading to them, Reutzel says.

The research Reutzel has conducted with the shared-book approach has been positive. “We found that shared book was very often the best approach when compared to other forms of oral reading practice,” he says.

Eldredge, who has been researching reading since 1981, has considered everything from whole language to phonics. Based on his research, he believes that teaching phonics is a necessary part of reading education. Phonics includes learning the sounds associated with letters and the sounds created when letters are grouped together.

“I believe that children need a strong foundation in phonics knowledge; teachers could do it in 10 minutes a day. That’s all you need, but you need to do it,” Eldredge says. “Phonics causes growth in word recognition, word recognition causes growth in reading fluency, and reading fluency causes growth in reading comprehension.”

Wilcox claims that while skills are important, they must be taught as they are needed by children in the context of real reading and writing experiences. “You would never dream of teaching someone to swim without actually getting into the pool,” Wilcox says.

There are many programs and methods for reading instruction, and more are being developed, discussed, and implemented. However, Reutzel believes it is more effective to develop the competency of teachers and to focus on how they can make a difference in a child’s reading abilities.

“You can change a program in schools, and you’ll get a 3 percent difference in children’s achievement scores. But if you change the competency of the teacher in the classroom, there is a 15 percent difference,” he says. “That means that a competent teacher is five times more powerful in influencing children’s achievement in reading than any program we could create.”

Making the World Literate

Reading is a necessity in the world today, Wahlquist says. “If a person can’t read, they can’t fill out an unemployment application or a tax form. The reading expectation today is higher because we need it higher,” she says.

The preparation for life in a literate world begins in the home. Parents can have a powerful impact on their child’s future by creating a literate environment where children can develop a love for reading.

The environment and techniques used by parents and teachers as a child grows may be helpful, but, says Wahlquist, “There is no guarantee that if you read to your child, they will learn to read.”

Normally, 80 to 90 percent of children will learn to read with appropriate support from parents, teachers, and schools, but there are 10 to 20 percent who continually struggle, Reutzel says. These children need special attention, and many of their needs go unmet. To meet the needs of these and all children, a concerted effort is needed from teachers and parents alike.

“Conditions have changed in society, and the curriculum in kindergarten needs to reflect that,” Reutzel says. “That’s why many of these children are failing coming in and failing throughout the system.”

Parents can and should involve themselves in curriculum changes, he says; however, they have a greater influence on children in the home, especially under the age of 5. “Parents are leaving these years to incidental processes rather than providing concrete kinds of learning experiences and opportunities for their children.” Parents who spend these early years reading to children and creating learning environments in the home will reduce the risk of failure and will set the stage for their children’s formal education.

Noelle Barker, a senior majoring in communications, and Stephanie Tripp, a senior English major, are interns for Brigham Young Magazine.