Teaching children to read is one of the most important jobs of early elementary teachers; reading skills, after all, follow children throughout their entire lives, in and out of school. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to teach reading, and it turns out that many students aren’t getting the instruction they need. We wanted to understand more about what parents should look out for, so we sat down with Meredith Cotter, an instructional coach with teachNOLA, former second grade teacher and librarian, and mom of two, to learn more. (For more tips, check out our new guide, What Parents Need to Know About Learning Read.)
What made you interested in reading instruction?
When I first left college, I was a children's librarian. In the summer, we had lots of different activities that kids could do as part of our summer reading club. And I found that many children wanted to participate, but the reading itself was a big struggle. I couldn't understand how they could be in fifth and sixth grade and be such poor readers. I didn’t think I could be a resource to my community as a librarian if I didn’t understand the root causes of their reading challenges. So I became a second grade teacher.
What does cognitive science tell us about how kids learn to read?
There have been quite a number of studies about how reading actually happens. The science is pretty unequivocal that we don't just recognize whole words. We actually read all the words on the page by rapidly scanning all the letters. It's just that our brains get really, really good at doing that so quickly that it feels like we just know it.
If we want our kids to become good readers, we need to make sure that we are helping them learn to decode words by connecting letters to sound. And we do that by systematically teaching them what sounds go with what letters, and how to blend them together to make words. We can start from the simplest rules in the English language, and get more and more complex, so that the vast majority of words become decodable. Then we combine that together with having lots of background knowledge about different topics, and a growing vocabulary, and you have a good reader.
Was there a major a-ha moment for you with reading instruction?
My first year teaching, I didn't know anything about teaching reading. I had a class full of second graders that either could read or couldn’t read, and I didn't know what I needed to do to bridge that gap. But then in my second year, the policy changed, and you had to have what was considered an “evidence-based reading program.” I immediately saw what a difference it made for kids when we started breaking down the skills. Students need to understand the word parts and how they're related. If you teach both of those things, then kids learn to be good readers and spellers.
For me, this all became much more personal when my daughter started struggling with reading. She has “characteristics of dyslexia.” But there is always a big question in my mind, how much of it is dyslexia and how much of it is what I call “dys-teachia.”
This is the problem of teaching reading in a way that sets children up to be weak readers. I think the layman’s concept of dyslexia is that you read words backwards, or letters jump around on the page, or all of these different things. But really it just means that you struggle to learn to read without multi-sensory supports, and that you really benefit from having systematic and explicit reading instruction. Whether you are clinically diagnosed with dyslexia, or you have characteristics of dyslexia, or you're a slow reader, the same type of reading instruction is going to help the majority of students progress.
Of course, there's always a small subset of children who are still going to struggle and maybe need something different. But we can meet the needs of nearly all readers if we are ensuring that everyone is getting systematic reading instruction that is rooted in letters and sounds. For students who are going to learn to read regardless of the type of instruction they receive, this kind of instruction is helpful because it helps them understand how English works. It helps them become better spellers and understand word meanings. For those students who aren't going to learn to read without it, it ensures that they are able to participate fully in grade-level work, and are not getting left behind.
What did you do when you saw that your daughter was struggling?
My daughter really wasn't getting what she needed in school. I started doing a lot more research about how I could support her at home, and I ended up teaching her a very similar program at home to what I taught my second graders. She made great progress. Yet again, this just deepened my belief that it's important to ensure that kids get good instruction because they will learn if you do it right.
But it’s hard to make change at the school level. I’m working to get the school a new reading curriculum, but my daughter is out of those grades now. Things can move really slowly. As a parent, I don't want to wait. I don't want to wait to convince someone. I don’t want to wait for someone to go get the training. That's going to be another whole year. It’s frustrating.
What are some of the things parents should ask their child’s teacher or the principal about how reading is taught?
You want to be asking things like, “How is phonics taught?” And you want to hear something like, "We teach phonics explicitly and systematically." If you hear them say something like, "We don't teach phonics," or "We teach balanced literacy" or “incidental phonics” or if there's any sort of implication that phonics is a bad thing, then I would be concerned.
Another thing you can look for is what books students are reading when they're practicing with the teacher. In kindergarten and first grade, you should be seeing a connection between the letter sounds and spellings they’re learning in a particular week, and the words they’re seeing in those texts. You want kids to be learning a skill and then practicing that same skill in a real text. What we don't want to see teachers is handing books to kids and saying, "Look at the first letter in the word, and look at the picture, and guess the word." We don't want to hear teachers talking about guessing at all. Guessing is what bad readers do. Good readers read the word.
What can parents do at home to support their kids’ reading?
For parents who really want to go for it at home, there are open source curricula now that tell you what to do, and what to teach. But that's putting a lot on a parent, especially if you’ve never taught. It put a lot on me, and I’ve been a teacher.
For most parents, there are more reasonable things you can do. Lots of back and forth conversation is a great place to start—conversations where you ask them to explain why and how, or you explain why and how. Talk with your kids as much as you can. Have books in the house, and read about things that are interesting to them. Build vocabulary and knowledge for students because that's tough for schools to completely fill in.
With little ones, there's a reason nursery rhymes are so popular. It’s great to get your youngest kids to start recognizing rhyming words. That’s the start of phonological awareness. And playing word games. For example, you can play “I spy with my little eye,” but rather than doing a color or a shape, you can use the first sound of the word. And if you're like, "I don't know about teaching this at home," then don't worry about teaching it at home! Just read with your child.