Friday, February 21, 2014

The 3 Components of Reading

Learning to read can be broken down into three components:

1. Decoding
2. Comprehension
3. Interest


1. Decoding - The *What* of Reading

This is the component most reading curriculum concentrates on. From recognizing sight words to sounding out CVC's to breaking words into their roots, prefixes and suffixes, decoding is probably the easiest component of reading to teach. The student reader doesn't have to know the meaning of the word in order to pronounce it correctly.

My daughter is a decoding queen... One time during an election campaign, she asked me, "Mom, what a 'system'?"
How do you define 'system' for a 5-year-old? I needed help. "Where did you see the word?" I asked.
"Well, that sign says the system's broken, and that guy's going to fix it. Is he?"

Because decoding is so easy to teach compared to the other components, it is often the first step to becoming a successful reader. Unfortunately (or fortunately), a child's favorite question is "Why?" They want to know why they have to learn how to read. That's where the other components come in.

2. Comprehension - The *How* of Reading

This component is not often taught directly, but it is often assessed. Comprehension is understanding the meaning of what you are reading. It is harder to teach than decoding because it is not always apparent whether a child know what they are reading.

I volunteered in a Pre-K class, and the teacher pointed out a student I'll call "Patty."
"I don't know what to do with her," the teacher told me. "She reads head and shoulders above the others, and she's getting bored."
I sat down with Patty and her Dr. Seuss book. I think it was The Cat in the Hat Comes Back she read the book from cover to cover, using all the appropriate voice inflections and pauses. When she was done, looked at me. From the look in the little girl's eyes, I'm pretty sure every adult up to that point had cooed and awed over her reading skills and thrown up their hands in despair that there was nothing left to teach her.
"That's very impressive," I told her. "What was your favorite part?"
Shock registered on Patty's face. She opened the book and started reading again. I gently covered the words with my hand. "No. Tell me about the story."
I doubt anyone had asked her to think about what she was reading, but when she began remembering what she had read it suddenly occurred to her how funny it was that a VOOM! had cleaned up the pink snow. All this reading had meaning!
Later, Patty and I would talk about characters and conflict and how to tell the difference between a story and non-story picture book, but I'll never forget that first day when Patty's face lit up with new comprehension.

3. Interest - The *Why* of Reading

This is the component most overlooked by curriculum, and for good reason. Interest, in all it forms and avenues, is hard to quantify. So instead, the curriculum breaks this component into two subcomponents - interest level and specific interests.

Interest Level is simply what topics and word-counts can each hold a reader's attention at each age bracket. Because children generally go through the same milestones at about the same time, Interests can be broken into leveled groups to some extent. For example, first graders are losing teeth and making everything into a pet. So books about loose teeth and pets usually target that age group. The problem comes when there is a disconnect between a reader's ability and their interest level.

For example, my 9-year-old should be reading chapter books. His reading level exceeds his age in comprehension and decoding. But he drives his 3rd grade teacher nuts. He simply is not interested in reading anything longer than a picture book.

Specific Interests are the hardest of all to teach, especially at the lowest level, because they are so varied, and the vocabulary of each subject is as specific as the subject itself.

"Sam" was a first grader who loved vampires. There are very few picture books about vampires, but this girl had a radar for Halloween books. Because I was working one-on-one with her, I could tailor the games to vampires. For example, I taught her about the ninja e by putting paper fangs on words. When the words had fangs (and an e on the end), the vowel was long, but short without the silent letter.

Putting it All Together

The key to teaching a child to read is working on all three components at the same time. Easy, right? Not so much.

I worked with a 4th grader - I'll call her "Meg" - who was reading well below her grade level, as measured by the state standards. As I began working with her, I soon saw that there were gaps in all three components.
She had missed some of the sight words from Kindergarten. Often she would try to read so fast that she transposed words, or substituted for words. Then she'd realize the sentence no longer made sense, so she changed the ending of the sentence instead of actually reading what was there. On top of this, she was trying to read books that she wasn't interested in.

After exposing her to lists of words so she could catch up, and helping her slow down so that she wasn't guessing at the content, I checked out picture books in her reading level. I found that there are lots of picture books on 3rd and 4th grade level, and with a little fine tuning, I was able to pick ones that she enjoyed. At the same time, I began to train Meg to pick out books herself. Eventually, she stopped reading Little House on the Prairie books (which she could never remember) and delved deep into The Dork Diaries. Suddenly, she was excited to tell me all about a character she could relate to and enjoy. And she was reading on grade level!

I use to help me choose books because it is fairly accurate in assessing interest level and comprehension level of a book. However, there are many great books that are not on the website, and you may have found a more comprehensive list. If so, I'd loved to know about it.

Now, all of my examples so far have been one-on-one coaching with a student. I can already hear my teacher friends saying, "Yeah, if I could work one-on-one it would be a cinch."

Let's pause for a little math (he he):

3 Components of Reading X 3 Basic Teaching Styles (See it, Say it, Do it) + Tons of Lesson Plans and Reports X 30 Students each with a unique set of personality, ability, and specific interests, = 1 Stressed Out Teacher!




Though a teacher can't always work one-on-one with each budding reader, here are some ideas suited to a classroom setting. They don't cover all three components, but they do help build reading skills.

  • Think about things you already do in class. Are there songs you sing as a class? How many sight words are in them? One of my kid's favorite songs, "My Grandfather's Clock," is full of sight words. Can you put the lyrics on the board or on a paper and track the words as you sing?
  • Maybe you can go on a reading fieldtrip. Exit, Stop, Walk and One Way are common words on the road.
  • Go on a sight word scavenger hunt in your classroom.
  • Play sight word bingo. Give each student a picture book and some pieces of paper. Have them find the word "the" "and" etc. and cover them with the paper. See which picture book has the most unique words on the page.
  • Or play bingo with a Science Book.
  • Maybe you can copy a page from the TEACHER'S MANUAL and have the students circle the words they recognize.
  • How about a treasure hunt on the playground? Write six clues using sight words and split the class into groups of five, so that each group can read one clue. Or make the clues large enough that several students can read them at the same time.