How to Teach Reading

The antique clock bonged the half hour as I squirmed in the big overstuffed Victorian style chair. My six-year-old clock reading skills were not yet good enough to calculate exactly how long I had been sitting there. But it was too long. I looked again at my McGuffey Reader. Dick, Jane and Spot stared back at me. I could read their names. I could read every word on the page, on all of the pages in fact, except one. And that one word was why my mother, per my teacher’s instructions, had confined me to the chair. I had to sit until I sounded the word out. Only I used all of the phonics rules my teacher had taught me and none of them worked. I was frustrated and for the first time in my life I hated a book. And I was losing the crush I had on my first grade teacher, Miss Johnston.

My mother, sat down with me again, and tried to help me. Tears filled my eyes.

“I’m just not smart enough to help you figure this out,” she said. “I’ll tell you the word but you have to promise not to tell your teacher.

I nodded as I sniffled.

The word I had struggled to sound out for hours, both in school during reading group and at home was “busy.”

I was relieved, then stunned, and finally angry when she told me the word. How in all that is sacred do you sound out the word “busy”? Using the phonics rules I had been taught, I came up with ’bussee’ and ‘buussee.’ And when I asked Miss Johnston what the phonic rules were that would help me with the word she gave me the run around. Because there aren’t any. The word ‘busy’ is one of many in the English language that break the so-called phonics rules.

But in 1956, the country was enamored with the book Why Johnny Can’t Read. This book, written by an Austrian (!!!), proclaimed that phonics was the key ingredient for teaching kids to read English. It was a total pile of garbage, and yet Americans loved it. Why a country, which was in the throes of McCarthy inspired communist witch hunts, would fall for what an Austrian had to say about proper English instruction I’ll never know. Maybe it’s something to do with Austria. The same people went to Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, including one where he became governor of California even though he couldn’t pronounce it. My own mother made me spend many uncomfortable hours while she used the book to instruct me. Fortunately, I was a lousy student and ignored most phonics instruction. And that is why I became such a good reader.

A little explanation is probably needed at this point. I am not just a good reader, I am a great reader. If there was an Olympic reading event, I would have made the team. Exhibit A is that I have been clocked at 1000 words a minute with 95% comprehension. That’s a figure that impresses most people. Unless, of course, you have a graduate degree in reading instruction. I have such a degree and was taught by one of the country’s leading experts on reading instruction, Dr. Barbara Swaby. I have over forty years of successfully teaching reading to countless students aged preschooler to adults. I tell you this so that you understand that I know what the hell I’m writing about. This is not hypothesis or “common sense,” or speculation. It is researched based and classroom-tested fact. My mother, Miss Johnston, and Rudolf Flesch were all wrong.

They weren’t a 100% wrong. But they were wrong about phonics being the best way to teach reading.

Let’s look at a few facts about phonics. Over half of all English words break at least one phonics rule. Also, there are only six phonics rules that have more words that follow the rule than there are exceptions. That is because English isn’t just one language. The Saxons, the Romans, the French, and the Vikings are just a few of the groups that crossed the Channel, kicked English butt and forced significant chunks of their language upon the Anglos. And when the British started to play turnabout, building an empire in the process, they incorporated new words from the people they conquered. The result is a polyglot language that is one of the most difficult to learn.

When you add into the mix that not everyone learns the same way and that many people have visual or auditory processing problems, a single best approach to teaching reading becomes obviously absurd. However there are some methods which have been used with great success. It helps to remember that literacy, which is what we as teachers and parents really want as an outcome, consists of four parts. First is understanding speech. Second is speaking. Third is reading, and the fourth is writing. Almost all children learn to understand and speak English without any formal instruction. Simply by being immersed in the language, they learn. Their brains are wired for language acquisition. In fact if exposed to more than one language, they become proficient in all of them.

Reading is where things get tougher. But children who are read to daily, who have access to interesting books, and who see their parents read regularly almost always become good readers. It is simply a matter of immersion in the written word. Parents who make comments, ask questions, and use silly voices while they read to their kids have an even higher rate of success. That’s because they are teaching that reading is an active process not a passive one. They are teaching children that the brain is the most important part of the reading process.

To really read something is to understand it. It is true that there are different levels of understanding, but meaning must be constructed. And many tools must be used in the process. Phonics is simply one. Context is a more important one. Want proof? Pronounce the following word: wind. Did you say it as though it is moving air? Or did you say it as something one does to an old clock or toy? The fact is that you can’t know how to pronounce the word without context. Read and lead are other words with the same problem.

I have attached a down and dirty handout for teaching reading. Using it, I have taken adults who were virtually illiterate and turned them into enthusiastic readers who want to get their GED and go to college. Feel free to use it and distribute it. And when someone tells you how important phonics is to learning to read, remind them that Helen Keller not only learned to read but became a celebrated author is spite of being deaf and blind. I guarantee she never sounded out a word in her life.

Reading Tips

by Jerome Parent

Always keep in mind that reading is understanding. It is not getting words right even though you need words to understand what the author is saying. Reading text successfully means that you understand what the writer is trying to say. Treat text like a conversation. In other words, make predictions and ask yourself questions such as: what do you know about the topic? How does the information fit into what you know? Is there special vocabulary, often at the beginning or end of a lesson that you need to learn?

When you come to a word you do not know there are certain things you should do:

1. Skip the word you don’t know. If it’s a name, just take the first letter or two and use them in place of the name. Names start with capital letters, so they are easy to spot.

2. If the sentence makes sense without the word, then keep reading.

3. If the sentence doesn’t make sense, try substituting another word that makes sense. For example: you can substitute the word “kids” for “children” and a sentence will make sense. Once you can make sense out of the sentence, then keep reading. If skipping the word bothers you, then write the word down and look it up later.

4. If you are still stuck, if the sentence does not make sense, then it is time to try and sound out the word. Start with parts of the word you might know, such as “sh,” “ing,” or “out.” Then, put the sounds together until you get a word that makes sense when you reread the sentence.

5. If you are still stuck, then ask someone or look up the word.

6. Remember that reading is understanding, so you MUST keep rereading the sentence until it makes sense.

Using this method will seem slow and awkward at first, but it is exactly these steps that good readers use. If you practice the steps in order, you will become a better and faster reader. Make sure you find some reading material that you like to practice with. Good luck.