LIVINGSTON: Do we still learn to read, then read to learn?

Do you remember learning to read?
Mar 14, 2014

I remember sitting in my older sister’s play classroom under the basement stairs. The lone 4-year-old pupil with a very determined 8-year-old sister who was going to teach me to read, and teach me she did.

She taught me to memorize every word in the first paragraph of “The Happy Hollisters” and, later, paraded me throughout the house and neighborhood so she could show off her prodigy.

Was I really reading? Probably not in the sense you and I might think of. Did I learn to fall in love with reading and books? Absolutely. I received attention and praise, and knew at age 4 that being able to read was important.

When I entered school and was “taught” to read, it was Dick and Jane who kept me company, and then multiple fictional characters to love in every anthology and library book presented to me. 

Fast-forward to reading instruction 2014. So, you might wonder how teachers today teach children to fall in love with reading. Beginning in kindergarten, children are immersed in books; books they can read, books that can be read to them and books they cannot wait to grow into. Thankfully, Dick and Jane have been replaced by wonderfully imaginative characters like Clifford and Junie B. Jones, who allow us into their stories to think and imagine.

Today’s classroom libraries are also at least 50 percent full of informational texts with National Geographic-worthy photographs, which provide early readers the opportunities to think and ponder over the meaning of the text. So, what is different these days in regards to beginning reading instruction and book choice? 

When I began my teaching career, the old adage was “learn to read and then read to learn.” Children of today are learning to read and reading to learn simultaneously. Today, children practice and apply reading strategies to further their comprehension at the same time, and often before they can decode every word.

We teach and encourage children to think while they read; hence, the bygone days of Dick and Jane with their routine characters and story line.
It really is all about the thinking.
As students become proficient in reading, we invite them into what is called “close” reading or purposeful reading. Well, actually, it is rereading. It is a careful and purposeful “rereading” of a text. It is an encounter with the text in which students really focus on what the author had to say, what the author’s purpose was, what the words mean and what the structure of the text tells us.
When we have students really read carefully, they are prepared to answer more complex questions, have deeper dialogue, think about what the author said, and fall in love with the written word and the images evoked.
Donalyn Miller, author of “The Book Whisperer,” reminds us that, "Students deserve instruction that moves them forward as readers and thinkers, and values their unique experiences and needs." 

Students do deserve purposeful instruction, and our teachers are up to the task. Every teacher today is a teacher of reading.

As our students become adults, they will read and write more than at any other time in human history. They will need advanced levels of literacy to navigate through the deluge of information they will find everywhere they turn. Literacy is no longer solely reading and writing, but rather the fuel to ignite our imaginations and create the world of the future.

In a multifaceted world, our children’s ability to read and think critically will be fundamental for their success, and it all begins with that first word.

— Valerie Livingston is principal of Mary A. White Elementary School in Grand Haven.

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