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FAQs About Teaching to Read

Is it bad to make mistakes?
Appropriate Pace
Restoring 'Forgotten' Skills


There are, of course, many ways to motivate child to learn or to follow instructions, or to do anything. There is the negative way consisting of firm expectations and reasonable negative consequences if the expectations are not properly met. This has its place, and must at times be used as a last resort to get a sluggish child moving! However, this should probably not be the primary type of motivational technique in teaching, especially when you want the child to develop a positive attitude and desire about learning. The negative should be used as a supplement to positive motivation, and should never dominate lesson time.

The idealist (like myself) may of course think that reading can and should be a motivation unto itself. :-) And for many kids in households where reading is highly valued, the desire to read will be very strong and the child will tend to be self-motivated. But the reality is, even for a child with strong self-motivation, learning to read is at times hard work! And the process of learning to read is an extended endeavor, so it is hard to see the end from the middle. Readable stories along the way do give a sense of accomplishment, and so reinforce the desire to read, but additional motivation will also be needed, especially for younger readers.

Praise of the accomplishment at every step is a strong motivator. Every word read correctly provides an opportunity for praise in the form of "Good!" or "Right!"; this response also serves to provide the immediate and constant feedback of the child's continual success in reading. The child depends on this constant feedback, especially when reading skills are still quite shaky, to know that they have read each word correctly.

Especially for younger children, it has been statistically demonstrated that excitement in the approach to lessons on the part of parents is one of the strongest indicators of success on the part of the children. This excitement should spill over to praise that is lashed on the child in the presence of others (such as grandparents and neighbors), a continued excitement toward reading in general (displayed by talking about books, magazines, etc.), reading books together, and being sensitive to recognizing words in public that the child is currently able to read.

And of course, a very central theme of this reading course is that reading lets each one of us be able to study the very Word of God for ourselves! Not only can we read letters which are written to us from friends and relatives far away, but we can read the greatest love letter of all, sent to us from God above, the Bible. God actually decided to speak to us, to address us in our human language. What a joy and privilege it is for us to listen! We can read of the way God has reached out to us in Jesus on the cross, and has set us free from the chains of sin, death, and the devil! And we can even read instructions that help us to live with others in the best way possible in daily life.

Healthy competition can also be useful motivation. If the child's best friend is learning to read at the same time he or she is, they can develop a sense of camaraderie about reading! They can even read to each other when they get together. Giving grades is an option, and it is a type of competition, competition against a certain norm. However, grades are likely to work best with children who are self-motivated anyway. Furthermore, while learning to read could be treated as an objective test at every turn (does the child get each word right the first time, the second time, etc.), it is best to treat learning to read as the acquisition of a skill, which simply takes repeated practice, practice, practice! (See section below on "Is it bad to make mistakes?")

Finally, concrete motivation is often desirable, and sometimes a downright necessity! The system should be primarily positive, although it could potentially have a direct negative consequence (by the withholding of the positive because of bad attitude, laziness, etc.). You might keep a point system in which one point is earned for each word read in the word-list or for each line of text read in the sentences and stories. These points could then be used towards "computer-time"--used for educational programs.

The system that I have adopted with my son is a penny jar. We start with a bag of pennies and an empty glass jar, and we put one penny in the jar for each word from a list or line from the story that is read. When the jar is full, then we go and do or buy something special which has been agreed upon in advance. The pennies in the jar are not intended to exactly correspond to the price of the activity or thing, but serve merely as an extremely concrete reminder of a goal to be accomplished. (My wife gets full credit for this wonderful idea!)


Is it bad to make mistakes?

If you find yourself constantly prompting your child in order to obtain the correct pronunciation of a word (until finally the light bulb goes on and he or she recognizes the word!), you may wonder if it is bad that the child made so many mistakes along the way. Absolutely not! This is language-learning! The way to learning language is to try, and to be willing to stumble, and to keep on trying. The key is that the child arrives at the point of word-recognition in the end. Then, reading has taken place!

Language learning is not about learning a bunch of facts. It is not like history, where you either know the fact of who was the first president of the United States, or you do not. The answer is either right or wrong. But language learning is really the acquisition of a skill, not a bunch of facts. Learning a set of phonics rules can be a first step to acquiring the skill of reading, but is by no means to be equated with or substituted for the skill reading! Only through practice can anyone build the networks within the mind which permit a reader to automatically recognize words in print without any cognitive reflection on the reading process.

Learning to read is much more akin to hitting a baseball or playing a violin than it is to learning history. Knowing the rules of how to stand and how to move and what to do can never substitute for practice. And, just because a student "knows how" to swing the bat or draw a bow does not mean that they will at first be smooth and proficient. In fact, you expect just the opposite. You expect that the first attempts will be halting and awkward, and that the results may be quite unpromising. But, you encourage practice, and you prompt, and you keep reminding the student of the right way to do things, and before you know it, the child is doing the right things on his or her own!

Keep in mind that a gentle "No" or a prompt ("Word family?") should not be considered as a terrible, negative criticism, but as a gentle corrective to redirect the child in the right direction. It should be seen like a mare who gently nudges her foal to show it which way she wants it to go. And such a redirect should be followed with an appropriate "Good!" or "Yes!" or "That's right!" when the correct pronunciation does come out.

Also, there may be especially incorrigible incorrect patterns that come to light along the way. After identifying these, you will want to work with the child to overcome these bad habits or the wrong learning that has taken place. This will require pointing out the problem, anticipating the mistake before it happens, prompting the child ahead of time to avoid the error, and rewarding them specially each time they overcome the mistake.

Because faltering or methodical attempts are not to be viewed or treated negatively, grading the lessons along the way is probably not advisable. After all, this is practice every step of the way, and the overall step-by-step improvement of reading skills will be quite evident to all with the passage of time! If grades are given at all, they should be limited to some specified number of sentences or a paragraph at the end of a lesson, and could be used to encourage special attention and effort to do a truly superb job in order to demonstrate the child's best level of reading competence.


Appropriate Pace

The appropriate pace will vary according to the child, and according to the day. Twenty to forty minutes is probably a good lesson time. The exact amount of material covered may very as well. Some concepts and sound patterns will prove more difficult for one child than the next. The pace may seem sluggish at one point, and then pick up speed in the next lesson. As the lessons become longer, you may expect to spend two or even three days on a lesson.

The start or completion of a lesson need not coincide with the beginning are end of a lesson time. In fact, when a lesson is begun on one day, continued to the next day, and finished on the third day, the concepts covered are likely to be much more strongly reinforced then if the lesson should be covered all in one day. Spread out over several consecutive days, the concepts will have the additional advantage of time, permitting them to be absorbed, settled, and internalized across several days. However, each lesson should be covered in a manner so as to provide continuity across the several days. At the beginning of the second day on a lesson, you should go back and quickly review the concepts that have been introduced so far in the lesson, and similarly on the third day.

Consistency is very important for making progress through the material and for retaining the reading skills already acquired. Six days per week for lessons is probably the best goal. This gives a little flexibility, but with the emphasis on continuity and consistency which are necessary to the development of reading skills. Seven days a week would not be bad at all, and if there is any question of conscience regarding the 'Sabbath', a special emphasis could be made on reading the Scripture passages from several lessons on that day! The problem of concern is likely to be a lack of consistency; four days per week is only slightly better than every other day, and three days per week really encroaches on the realm of inconsistency. The old adage 'if you don't use it you'll lose it' is especially true when it comes to acquiring any skill such as language learning. Skipping lessons every other day provides ample opportunity to lose the reading skills already acquired!

Nevertheless, a week of sickness or vacation should not destroyed the entire program. In coming back to the program after a break, you may want to go back and briefly review some of the recently acquired skills from recent lessons; but primarily forge ahead into new material. While each lesson focuses especially on the sound patterns introduced within that particular lesson, each lesson also endeavors to reinforce recently acquired skills from the prior few lessons. In this way, it is usually possible to move ahead after several days' absence without losing or forgetting any skills.


Restoring 'Forgotten' Skills

It is almost inevitable that the child will seemingly forget some sound pattern or reading skill which he or she had already perfected. This may be due to interference caused by new sound patterns which have just been introduced, or it may be due to the lack of recent use of the skill. In the first case, you should seek to highlight the distinctions between the sound patterns that are causing interference. In the second case, encourage the child to remember, and prompt him or her to try to recall the particular sound pattern. However, it may be necessary simply to go back and review a word list, or even a whole lesson. This should not be too time-consuming, for the skill will probably come back pretty quickly. In fact, going back to an earlier lesson may provide a nice respite, especially if the child is struggling to remember several sound patterns in the current lesson.


© Copyright 1998-2007 Joe A. Friberg. All Rights Reserved.