Raising a Reader, Naturally
                     Through Sensitivity, Guidance and Grace
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Chapter Fourteen
Warning: First-Grade Reading Instruction!
The Reading Group
Mrs. Roe asked me to take her first-grade reading group through their reading assignment, Amelia Bedelia Helps Out, a story by Peggy Parish. She instructed me to follow the teacher’s guide exactly. Since the lesson emphasized comprehension this meant I had to use the questions printed in the teacher’s guide—no room for improvisation or creativity on my part.
The small reading group was bright and eager, some of the best readers in the class. As we worked our way around the table, each child took his or her turn reading one page, followed by the rest of the group reading the same page in chorus.
I began the session by asking the children the first question listed in the guide, “What does Amelia do to help out?” The children were already familiar with the Amelia Bedelia stories. They knew they were fun to read because Amelia Bedelia was always mixing things up. The group, however, displayed only a mild degree of interest.
Then I read the next question. “What does Miss Emma mean when she tells Amelia Bedelia to weed the garden?” The children answered, “She wants Amelia to pull the weeds.” The answers were obvious. The children’s enthusiasm waned.
Sensing this, I (secretly) decided to depart from the publisher’s prescribed questions. Instead I asked the children to think about the yard work they had to do. What did they think might happen if Amelia Bedelia came to their house to help them?
The children laughed and they all started talking at once, earning the group (and me) a sidelong glance from Mrs. Roe. Nevertheless, I listened to their answers, or in this case, their fantasies.
With one well-placed question the story had suddenly gained new meaning, a personal meaning for each of them.
The children then went on to finish the story – this time with far more enthusiasm and skill, as they eagerly anticipated the outcome. Now they were reading to find out not only what happened in the story, but to satisfy their own imaginations, each reader anticipating what Amelia Bedelia might do if she actually came to their house to help them. With this, the lesson had taken on a whole new meaning.
At the end of the story, the children were still entertaining their ideas, even as they returned to their desks. Nevertheless, given today’s emphasis on structured and prescribed instruction, I was left to keep this secret to myself.
Can a Little Partner Adapt?
If a child learns to read early and naturally under the guidance of a senior partner, the question is will that child adapt to the demands of a structured classroom setting – to structured and prescribed lessons? Will an early learner be too far ahead of most of the students in the class? Will an already-reading first-grader be bored?
These questions are difficult to answer since every school, classroom and teacher tends to have different expectations. In the example above the class was being taught by a first-year teacher who understandably wanted to follow all the rules. Still today, for too many teachers, both new and experienced, this is not unusual.
Yet children who have been well prepared for kindergarten or first-grade always have an advantage: they are ready to absorb new information and gain new knowledge; they are ready to seek and find new avenues for learning; they are ready for new challenges; and they are quickly recognized as leaders among their peers.
I think it is safe to say that in every case a child is definitely better off for having been well taught before entering school –there doesn’t seem to be any significant downside. Especially if an early-reader has already been prepared for the classroom environment.
Up-Side-Down Reading Instruction
Upon entering a first-grade classroom for the first time, an early-reader will quickly discover that the world of reading, at least as far as he or she has known it, has essentially been turned upside down.
Where once this early-reader listened with pleasure to the stories parents or senior partners read aloud, where someone shared books and stories with them, the early-reader now finds that the classroom approach to learning to read is very different from what they had known. Teaching reading in a classroom setting means instruction almost always follows a structured and prescribed process.
With too many kids and only one teacher, learning to read is now just so many mechanics, so many bolts and nuts, so many sounds, exercises and drills, and prescribed question and answer sessions.
Even though placed in the care of a well-intentioned teacher, a small partner finds that the earlier wonders of a well written story and the comfort found in much loved characters are quickly left behind. It has all been replaced by formal reading instruction.
Where Once a Small Partner ....
Where once a small partner curled up, comfortable and secure, on a supportive partner’s lap and actively participated in the saga of The Three Little Bears or worried and laughed his or her way through the farmyard dilemma in Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin, now that child can only “listen” quietly to a story along with 20-plus other kids. There is little opportunity for a child to become an active participant in the story itself.
Where once that same child learned how to recognize or sound out a new word with a gentle and encouraging guide alongside, he or she is now left to bark out letter sounds along with the rest of the class.
Where once a little partner’s early enthusiasm and curiosity lead to thinking through a story in tandem with a senior partner, now it has all been replaced by an emphasis on learning alphabet letters (which he or she already knows) and their respective sounds (phonics). Coupled with learning sight words through repetition (words whose letter sounds do not follow the rules and can only be learned by “sight”), today classroom reading instruction concentrates to a great extent on these word attack skills.
True comprehension or reading for meaning is mostly left to a later date – a much later date.
Rigid and prescribed classroom instruction occurs, of course, because there are only so many hours in a school day and too many young minds to teach.
Consequently, instruction takes a very broad approach as well as a continuous (and sometimes monotonous) course in attempting to reach every child regardless of their level of achievement or their individual needs. No wonder so many unprepared-for-reading children struggle so much – and even fairly well-prepared children fall into the isolated phonics and vocabulary trap.
Early Comprehenders Cannot Be Deterred.
We know that in the earlier grades that little attention is generaly paid to reading for meaning or in learning how to comprehend reading material. Although publishers of reading textbooks provide some direction and emphasis on “comprehension,” their efforts, intended for group instruction, fail to reach students on an individual or personal level where true comprehension takes place.
So as the primary grade teachers labor to teach word skills and vocabulary, true reading comprehension has taken a back seat.
This is why it is so important for partners to engage in comprehension strategies and skills at an early age. This is why it is so important to raise an early “comprehender.” Early and proficient little comprehenders do not have to worry about failing a fourth-grade reading test, because their comprehension skills have long been secure.
What’s more, because little reading partners already know how to understand what they read, they will always get more pleasure out of their own reading – leading, of course, to their desire to read more.
Teen-agers? Comprehension?
As I write this, it occurs to me that the advice I am giving to wise and serious senior reading partners – to help them incubate their little readers or emerging comprehenders– is exactly the same advice I give to high school teachers.
In today’s classroom, high school teachers are more often than not faced with having to move their teenaged students from surface readers to readers who can read for ideas and depth of knowledge. Today, teachers still have to teach most 15- or 16-year-old students how to read for meaning. And yet it is so late.
In reality it is exactly the same techniques or strategies (imagination and thinking) that lead to true comprehension whether you are a toddler or freshman or sophomore. The age, or grade, doesn’t matter. It simply takes encouragement, knowledge and practice– which a senior partner can readily and naturally supply.
Shhhh… Just Listen!
In contrast to classroom-instructed readers who are only taught to abide by prescribed guidelines and strategies as they struggle to try to comprehend what they are reading, little partners are able to work naturally to understand what a story is really all about. The evidence is already well in place prior to preschool or first grade.
Watch as your little partner shows off his or her knowledge and skills by pointing to a newly introduced illustration and declaring, “I already know what this is.”
Watch as your toddler giggles when the second little pig’s house is blown down. Listen as he or she questions Little Red-Riding Hood’s fate. This is real comprehension. This is a child thinking.
This is a child emotionally and intellectually involved in the story. This is a child who is connecting with the story’s elements through an active imagination or sincere thought processes – from well-earned knowledge. This is what we must nurture and encourage as young children make their way to full literacy.
In contrast, look at what often happens when a curious little classroom listener asks too many questions. “Shhhh...,” we say. “Don’t interrupt. Listen to the story.”
What does an overworked daycare provider do when a toddler becomes so engaged in the story that he or she wants the pages turned faster to hurry the ending?
“Wait,” the well-intentioned teacher admonishes, “listen to the story -- along with the rest of us.”
Because it is impossible for all twenty-plus students to personally interact with a story all at the same time, a classroom teacher is left to ask the children to listen and in effect ask them to accept the seemingly sacred words and ideas of the author.
Although the author went to great lengths to write a wonderful story, young students are left feeling that their only role is to listen. Do not think. Do not work to understand the author’s message. Just listen!
Is there an author alive who would not thrill over a child’s inquiry into a story that they had worked so hard to create? Is there an author who wouldn’t wish to engage a child in a story in such a way as to create a new avenue of thinking for that child, a greater depth of understanding of the world? Of life?
After all, the purpose of creativity is to give each of us a chance to pause, to think anew – to think up even more questions.
A Small Partner Growing to Think Anew
Right now, it is probably best not to worry about your child’s future classroom experience. Little partners who each time expect to pause, to think anew, who have had the pleasure of interacting with a story and the storyteller, will not be discouraged as they make their way through rigid classroom instruction.
A knowledgeable little partner already knows it is all right to think about a story and what it means. Your little partner already knows how to relate to a story and to its characters.
If your partner must simply listen in silence to the storyteller, your little partner knows that he or she can always discuss the story later, in conversations with an attentive senior partner. Together you can share the same stories again at home.
Unfortunate children, children without senior partners, will not have had this pleasure. For if at an earlier age:
  • Their imaginations were not nurtured,
  • If they did not become familiar with such concepts like sequence of events,
  • If they cannot visualize a character’s personality and growth,
  • Or understand how a story’s events relate to their own life,
  • Then it will be easy for them to believe that sounds and letters are the whole show.
  • Full and meaningful comprehension will simply have to wait until later – if at all.
Little Reading Partner vs. First Grade Student