Learning to Read or Reading to Learn

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In the world of early literacy education, there has long been a prevailing myth that young readers should start by learning to read and later transition to reading to learn. For decades, theories of children’s phases of reading acquisition oversimplified the process. So, the “learning to read” then “reading to learn” made sense. However, the science of reading tells us a different story. Reading is an extremely complex task. While we need to explicitly and systematically teach early readers the foundational skills of phonemic awareness and decoding, we can simultaneously teach other reading skills as well. I want to show you how teachers can integrate learning to read and reading to learn effectively in their classrooms, all while addressing various strands of the reading rope. Think of it as weaving together a rich tapestry of literacy for our young learners.

Why Simultaneous Learning to Read and Reading to Learn Matters

The traditional approach of first learning to read through basic texts and later applying those skills to more complex materials has its limitations. It can lead to a delayed exposure to the world of knowledge that books offer. The science of reading, however, advocates for a more comprehensive approach that immerses young readers in all strands of the reading rope from the outset.

When children learn to decode words, they are acquiring a powerful tool. This phonetic decoding will help set them up to read words more efficiently. But if they get stuck at this phonetic decoding stage and don’t connect the sounds and the letters in a word to its meaning, then the word will not be mapped into their brain for automatic recall.

Weaving In Vocabulary

To implement this approach effectively, teachers can use decodable texts and integrate age appropriate instruction of vocabulary, grammar, comprehension strategies, and syntax. For instance, in a decodable text which focuses on the Floss/FSZL rule, a sentence reads, “Whin is a fan of jazz and Tiff is a fan of chess.” What a rich opportunity to discuss the multiple meanings of the word fan with your students. For example, you might ask:

  • “What does fan mean in this sentence?”
  • “What is another meaning for fan?”
  • “What is a synonym for the meaning of fan in this sentence?”

Discussions like these help the students build their comprehensive understanding of the multiple layers of English words.

Weaving in Grammar and Syntax

Grammar and syntax can be naturally woven in by discussing sentence structure and how it contributes to the meaning of the text. Let’s use another sentence from the same decodable book as an example: “After Whin and Tiff toss the cash, they sit for a bit on the moss path.” Teachers can ask questions like:

  • “What part of speech is the word bit in this sentence?”
  • “Are there other parts of speech for the word bit?”
  • “Can you use the other part of speech for bit in a sentence?”
  • “If we moved the word “after” to the middle of the sentence (“Whin and Tiff toss the cash AFTER they sit for a bit on the moss path.”), how would that alter the meaning of the sentence?”

Discussions like these make grammar and syntax tangible for young readers. In this way we are meeting our students where they are in decoding while supporting their language comprehension.

Weaving in Comprehension

Comprehension strategies come into play as teachers engage students in discussions about the text. Teachers and parents can ask questions before, during, and after reading. They can also model to the students answering the questions aloud. Encourage questions like:

  • “Why do you think the author used this title?”
  • “What do you think will happen next?”
  • “Why did the character make that choice?”
  • “How is the character feeling? How do you know?”
  • “After reading this book, is there anything you could change if you wrote it? Why?”

These questions promote critical thinking and comprehension, showing students that reading is about making sense of what they read. Guiding them to make real-world connections and inferences sets them up for independent reading success.

The Role of Read Alouds

Many who are hesitant about giving up leveled readers often erroneously assume that without them, students will not have opportunities to build their knowledge base. In addition to all the layers mentioned above within decodable texts, reading aloud exposes students to more complex vocabulary, literary concepts, and syntax than they can decode on their own. It also promotes comprehension and background knowledge, as students engage in rich discussions about the text.

Teachers can choose a wide range of texts for read alouds, including those that are beyond their students’ current decoding abilities. This exposes students to the world of ideas and encourages them to explore challenging content with guidance. When choosing read alouds, consider the following to make the most of your reading time:

  • Can you lead your students to make connections to the story?
  • How can students access their background knowledge to make sense of the story?
  • What clues in the engaging illustrations help support their comprehension?
  • What cultures can your students learn about through this story?
  • What population might your students learn about and connect with in the story?
  • Does this book lend itself to a previous book you read aloud? Could the students compare and contrast the two?
  • Does this story bring humor to young children?
  • Do the characters change throughout the story?
  • Does the text include rich language structures?

A Path Forward in Learning to Read

The myth of starting with learning to read and then transitioning to reading to learn is no longer valid. Skilled teachers delicately shift the balance of instruction from year to year. But now we see that they also expertly weave together multiple strands of reading instruction within the same lesson. Simultaneous learning and reading offers young readers a holistic, comprehensive approach to literacy that fosters comprehension, vocabulary growth, decoding, and a love for reading. By weaving in various language components and engaging in meaningful read alouds, elementary school teachers and parents can set their students on the path to becoming confident, lifelong readers. With this approach, students will be set up for success to tackle comprehending less controlled text when they graduate from decodable texts. Consequently, we can start them on this path earlier than we ever thought! What small changes can YOU make to help your students read to learn AND learn to read?

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