By Dr. Raymond J. Huntington
Is your child struggling to develop basic reading and comprehension skills? Is he or she growing more and more frustrated as reading assignments become more difficult? If so, you’re not alone. By the latest estimates, as many as 40 percent of the nation’s 4th graders aren’t reading at grade level. What’s especially unfortunate is that the vast majority of these young people have the potential to overcome their reading difficulties if they receive instruction based on strategies that have been proven effective.
Such strategies have been clearly documented by The National Reading Panel, which was appointed in 1998 by the National Institute for Child Health and Development and the U.S. Secretary of Education in response to a mandate from Congress. After extensive study, the Panel found that phonemic awareness – whereby children acquire the ability to pull apart and blend the individual sounds in a word – is one of the most important first steps in learning how to read. Children develop this awareness when they’re taught with a comprehensive program that also emphasizes phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary development and comprehension. Once a child is able to focus on the individual sounds in spoken language, he or she can relate these sounds to printed letters on the page.
Signs of Struggling Readers
Fortunately, many schools and school systems are now emphasizing phonemic awareness in their reading instruction, particularly for young children. Yet parents and caregivers should still be highly alert for signs that their children are struggling. As noted in Why Kids Can’t Read: Challenging the Status Quo in Education, by Phyllis Blaunstein and Reid Lyon, here are some signs that a child may be in trouble:
Kindergarten and First Grade
• Great difficulty in understanding that words are made up of individual sounds that can be pulled apart and combined to make words: for example, that batboy can be pulled apart into bat and boy and that the word bat can be broken down still further and sounded out as: b aaaa t;
• Struggling to read and sound-out common, one-syllable words, such as dog, cat, hop, nap.
From Second Grade On
• Frequently mispronouncing unfamiliar or complicated words, leaving out parts of words or confusing the order of the parts of words, saying amulium instead of aluminum, for example;
• Frequent trouble finding the right word and confusing words that sound alike, such as lotion for ocean, tornado instead of volcano, or humanity for humidity;
• Stumbling when reading multi-syllable words, without coming close when trying to sound out the full word;
• Omitting parts of words when reading, so that it sounds as if there’s a hole in the word, reading convertible as conible, for example;
• Oral reading that is choppy and labored, with substitutions, omissions and mispronounced words;
• Poor performance on multiple choice tests, and an inability to finish tests on time;
• Substituting words with the same meaning for words that your child can’t pronounce, saying car instead of automobile, for example;
• Disastrous spelling skills.
Signs of Effective Reading Instruction
If your child is experiencing these problems, it’s important to look closely at the reading instruction he or she is receiving. Here are the qualities of sound, proven instruction for phonemic awareness:
• Children are learning the sounds of language, and teachers are helping them practice with sounds that make up words.
• Children are learning how to put sounds together to make up words, and how to break words apart into separate sounds.
• Children are learning the letters of the alphabet, and can recognize the names and shapes of letters.
• Children’s teachers are reading to the class and talking about what the students are reading.
• Children are learning phonics – how sounds and letters are related – a process that should continue for about two years, and practicing phonics by reading books that focus on the letter-sound relationships they’re learning.
• Children are practicing writing the letter-sound relationships in words, sentences, and stories.
• Children are being asked questions to help them think about the meaning of what they’re reading, and are learning the meanings of new words.
• Children are learning to expand their vocabulary by using the dictionary, using known words and word parts to figure out words, and using clues from the rest of a sentence to better understand the meaning of words.
• Children are being taught to think as they read, and to make sense of what they’re reading.
• Teachers are checking to see if students understand what they’re reading by asking questions about the story or the material.
Like mathematics, the arts, and athletics, reading proficiency will always come easier to some students than others. Recognizing this, most elementary school teachers strive to help each individual student overcome personal obstacles while ensuring that the class as a whole is reading at grade level. And although effective reading instruction is far from “simple,” each of these straightforward practices is vital for getting struggling readers on track to success.
Dr. Raymond J. Huntington and Eileen Huntington are co-founders of Huntington Learning Center, which has helped children achieve success in school for 28 years. For more information about how Huntington can help your child, call 1 800 CAN LEARN.