What Parents Want to Know about Teaching Kids to Read & Write:
Q & A with Dr. Connie Hebert
Q. In your opinion, what is the appropriate age range for a child to begin formal reading instruction?
A. As an educator, reading specialist, and mother of 3 children, I strongly believe reading instruction should begin in infancy! Talking and reading to babies is essential for a strong literacy foundation. As for school instruction, the appropriate age for ‘formal training’ begins around 5 years old, depending on the child’s maturity, social skills, concepts about print, book handling skills, and self-confidence. This varies from child to child, but in order to prepare children for what lies ahead during the crucial first grade year, formal instruction generally begins in preschool and kindergarten programs.
Q. Do you believe formal literacy instruction at an earlier age is inappropriate or even harmful?
A. This depends on the child. Some children are ready to read and write at 3 years old and others are not ready until around 6 years old. The most important thing is to help each child feel confident as a reader and writer, even if they are only ‘reading the pictures’ or ‘dictating the story.’ All early attempts should be validated and encouraged. If your learners are pushed to read and write before they are ready, they will find ways to avoid literacy activities. They may also develop inappropriate behaviors when dealing with difficult or unknown words and these behaviors can become habitual. Habits are hard to break and I explain the six most common habits of struggling readers in my first book, Catch a Falling Reader (2008, 2nd ed).
Q. At what age should a parent be concerned if a child has not yet begun to read?
A. Teachers and parents should be aware of ‘red flags’ that signal potential literacy problems during the Kindergarten year. By late fall of first grade, struggling students should be promptly evaluated and a plan of action should be implemented to ‘catch’ the child before the achievement gap grows too large.
Q. Reading is a complex process. Why do kids begin ‘to fall’ as readers and writers?
A. This is different for every struggling learner. For some children, phonological and phonemic awareness is difficult and frustrating due to many factors during the preschool years. For others, using graphophonics to decode new and difficult words is a big challenge. Still, there are children who can decode words competently, but they lack fluency and comprehension when asked to read increasingly difficult text. For this reason, educators must be able to ‘diagnose’ students so that they can become experts in determining the greatest challenge for individual students. Using assessment data as a means of informing instructional practices is so important.
Q. In your experience, what are 3-4 of the most common problems you see in children that prevent them from making steady progress in learning to read?
A. The most common problems that frequently prevent children from progressing steadily are as follows:
* Lack of motivation for reading and writing and/or a lack of confidence which often leads to frustration, anxiety, and despair among struggling students.
* ‘Sounding out’ every letter within a word as opposed to using parts of words and other much more effective strategies.
* Looking up and waiting for someone to tell them the word or to read it for them.
* Reading ‘painfully’, word by word. Visual scanning skills and tracking are limited and thus prevent the child from reading fluently. Fluency is the key to increased comprehension. Check out my bestselling packs of sight word phrases to help with visual tracking and fluency! Flash them to your falling readers DAILY. Available at: http://www.conniehebert.com
* Lack of writing instruction! What they can write, they can read. We increase reading skills by addressing writing skills. We all have kids who read well, but can’t write well. But, we have NO kids who can write well who cannot read. For more on writing for young learners, check out my 2nd book: Catch a Falling Writer (2010) Corwin Press or Amazon.
Q. About what percentage of K-2 children have such problems?
A. Approximately 20 – 30% in most districts, with greater percentages in urban school districts, struggling socio-economic areas, and/or rural areas of the country. We must work to catch ‘falling readers’ in grades K – 2 before the gap gets too large to catch them up. We must implement strategies and approaches for addressing our growing second language learners and support children with special needs in ways that will help them move towards reading ON or ABOVE grade level as soon as possible! They must READ and WRITE DAILY to get better at READING and WRITING. They simply are NOT reading and writing enough.
Q. How can parents be most helpful to a child in these cases?
A. Parents should ask good questions and demand answers about their child’s literacy development. First grade is the most important year to begin questioning their child’s progress, but each year is crucial for understanding how to support and encourage children at home.
Q. In your opinion, is memorizing spelling or text, or studying phonics, helpful in preparing a child to read?
A.The best ways to prepare children for reading is to read to them, give them daily opportunities to scribble/color/write, make words with magnetic letters, tell them hundreds of stories, and allow them to listen to audio books as often as possible. Help your child create their very own BOOK BOX. Together, you can gather reading materials that are of interest to the child to place in the book box for ‘reading time.’ Materials might include maps, catalogs, recipe books, favorite books and interesting books, phone books, menus, comic books, newspapers, a dictionary and a thesaurus, and anything else the child might want to read. Encourage the child to change what’s in the box once a week!
Q. Many parents today feel they must relentlessly quiz their pre-K kids to get them “ready” for reading. How do you feel about this?
A. Although parents of preschoolers mean well, they may actually be causing problems for their children by quizzing them on words, spellings, meanings, etc. The best way to prepare Pre-K kids for literacy is to read to them, talk with them, and write with them! When preschoolers ask how to spell a word, the most effective action is to write it down, as opposed to spelling it aloud. This helps to commit the word to the long-term memory because the child has to see it, read it, and copy it.
Q. What is your opinion of “Super Baby” products (Apps, CDs, DVDs, Software programs, etc.) marketed to parents of children 6 months to 4 years, with the claim they will put the child at the head of his/her class?
A. I think it depends on whether a child responds to games/software like this. If they are motivated to want to use technology to read, spell, and learn sight words, that’s fine. Kids are especially good at technology because they take risks and receive instant feedback. If they enjoy it, they should do it. If, however, there is pressure to reach certain levels and scores then this will only cause problems in the future. Some children who have problems with fine motor skills will respond better to the keyboard and game pieces. All children, however, should be constantly encouraged to handle books, color and draw, listen to stories, talk about what they see, hear, feel, and to listen to stories. Vocabulary development is crucial to the development of higher-order thinking, reading, and writing.
Q. What harm might they do?
A. Children who are exposed to extreme pressures, time constraints, too much time with devices and not enough time speaking, reading, and writing with adults are often kids who fall as readers, writers, and thinkers.
As parents, teachers, and administrators we must work together to catch falling readers, writers, and thinkers…while we can!
Let’s catch them ALL…
Bring Dr. Connie to your school, parent literacy event, or conference. More information at: http://www.conniehebert.com