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The Best Way to Teach Kids to Read

Of all our kids' intellectual milestones, learning to read may be the one that worries parents the most. We know that children will eventually talk, if we just wait until they're ready, and learn their colors from merely interacting with the world. But when it comes to reading, we place a lot more pressure on them  -- and on ourselves.

Many parents, hoping to give their preschoolers a critical boost, try to ready them by buying lots of phonics workbooks and computer software; some even hire tutors before the first grade.

Plus, children are now expected to read earlier than ever before, says Kathy Egawa, Ph.D., associate executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English. "In the old days, kids really didn't move beyond learning the alphabet and sounding out words until age 8," she says. Today, we start the push in kindergarten."

"When I first began to teach kindergarten 26 years ago, we didn't even start the alphabet until Christmastime," says Carol Schrecengost, a teacher in Stow, OH. "But now I begin teaching letter sounds during the first month of school  -- in part because students are learning their letters earlier, but also because parents and administrators expect it."

But even as our expectations continue to increase, the latest brain-development research shows that, on average, kids are simply not ready to start learning until around age 5. And those who do start sounding out words at younger ages aren't necessarily brighter, says Beverly Cox, an associate professor of literacy and language at Purdue University: "An early walker isn't destined to be a great athlete, and an early reader isn't destined to be more intelligent."

Ironically, expecting more from young children than is developmentally appropriate may just frustrate them, and turn them off to an interest in reading when it's most important, says Egawa.

Carolyn Hoyt's last article for Parenting was "How Memory Develops," in the October 1999 issue.

Perils of Preconceptions

Young kids who start reading early are often perceived as wunderkinds, while those who take a little longer to catch on may be labeled as slow.

But perception doesn't always jibe with reality, as Carol Hamlin, of New York City, learned. While her older son, Will (now 12), enjoyed combing through the sports section of the paper on his bus ride to kindergarten, his brother, Tim (now 9), was still struggling to read when he entered second grade. "At first, we were concerned that there was something wrong," says Hamlin. "But it turns out that he only needed time and practice. Now he's in a program for gifted children. He's just a kid who has to do things his own way."

The playing field between early readers and other children usually evens out by the second or the third grade. That doesn't mean that reading shouldn't be taught with some rigor in the first grade. But drilling 3- and 4-year-olds on phonics and expecting 5-year-olds to be fully literate isn't the best approach. "It may squelch their natural enthusiasm for books," says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University, in California. "When kids are young, it's more important that they imagine themselves as the pirates, runaways, and explorers in stories than they read every word. You want them to develop a love for reading before they try to master the mechanics."

So how can we help our children develop that love? In order to figure it out, we must understand how we learn to read in the first place.

Nuts and Bolts

When you hear that a 5-year-old is "ready" to read, you may think that a special reading area of her brain has just clicked on. But it's more complicated than that. In order to read  -- and fully comprehend  -- text, several areas of the brain must start to work together.

Say you're reading the word "cat" (as you've done just now): Your eyes perceive the cluster of squiggly lines, and send the image to the area of your brain that attaches meaning to things you see. This information is then shuttled over to the brain's auditory area, so it can be translated into phonemes  -- the K sound, the A sound, and the T sound. A third part of the brain, called the angular gyrus, then synthesizes the individual phonemes and their meaning as a group: the word "cat."

But for information to zap from the visual area to the auditory area and finally to the angular gyrus, the connection between these three  -- a special circuit that develops only with time and practice  -- must be fully functional, says Reid Lyon, Ph.D., chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Eventually, as a child grows older and develops both his vocabulary and his letter-recognition skills, information travels that circuit almost instantaneously, and reading becomes second nature.

More Than Just Phonics

Of course, reading involves much more than just decoding a few clumps of letters. "Is a reader someone who identifies sounds, or someone who can look at a page and understand a story?" Egawa asks. "True reading is dependent upon understanding meaning."

A child who's really reading does more than just sound out a word like "cat." He must also be able to know whether a "cat" is a person, place, or thing; to comprehend the grammar in each sentence (Does the cat wear the hat or does the hat wear the cat?); to dramatize and contextualize the story in his head (cats don't normally talk and wear hats, do they?); and to empathize with the story's characters and understand the ramifications of their actions (that mom is sure going to be mad when she finds the mess made by that silly cat).

In other words, reading Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat is an incredibly complex task that requires significant understanding beyond just being able to sound out words. It's based as much on a knowledge of how the world works as it is on how language works. So even though a toddler or a preschooler may not be ready to translate letters into phonemes into words, she is able to start gaining the contextual grounding that will allow her to give those words meaning. "From birth forward, children are becoming readers and writers," says Cox. "Their listening, drawing, early wordplay, pretend reading, storytelling, and scribbling all set the stage for reading excellence and a love of books and writing later on."

More Than Just Phonics

Of course, reading involves much more than just decoding a few clumps of letters. "Is a reader someone who identifies sounds, or someone who can look at a page and understand a story?" Egawa asks. "True reading is dependent upon understanding meaning."

A child who's really reading does more than just sound out a word like "cat." He must also be able to know whether a "cat" is a person, place, or thing; to comprehend the grammar in each sentence (Does the cat wear the hat or does the hat wear the cat?); to dramatize and contextualize the story in his head (cats don't normally talk and wear hats, do they?); and to empathize with the story's characters and understand the ramifications of their actions (that mom is sure going to be mad when she finds the mess made by that silly cat).

In other words, reading Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat is an incredibly complex task that requires significant understanding beyond just being able to sound out words. It's based as much on a knowledge of how the world works as it is on how language works. So even though a toddler or a preschooler may not be ready to translate letters into phonemes into words, she is able to start gaining the contextual grounding that will allow her to give those words meaning. "From birth forward, children are becoming readers and writers," says Cox. "Their listening, drawing, early wordplay, pretend reading, storytelling, and scribbling all set the stage for reading excellence and a love of books and writing later on."

A Time for Patience

In the end, nurturing a love of reading isn't about having a precocious 4-year-old. It's about raising a 21-year-old whose whole life will be enriched by books. And that's a goal worth waiting for. As Mark Twain said, "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them."

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