Dr. Diana Sharp served as the reading consultant for ItzaBitza and ItzaZoo. Her website is www.dianasharp.com.
Dear Dr. Sharp:
My son’s first grade teacher has been teaching phonics, and he can sound-out words. But he’s very reluctant to go the next step and read sentences, saying it’s “too hard.” I get the easiest books I can find at the library for our reading time, but he thinks they’re boring, and he keeps asking to go back to our “regular” books – the ones where I read to him. What should I do?
Congratulation! Keep Reading to your Child
The first thing is to congratulate yourself for getting your son off to a great start. He loves being read to, and that’s terrific! Give yourself a gold star.
Next, be glad that he knows how to sound-out words using phonics. Research shows that good readers look carefully at all the letters in a word and match them to sounds, while poor readers tend to look just at the first letter – or first and last letter of a word – and “guess” the word. Give your son’s teacher a gold star.
Reading Sentences is HARD
But the biggest gold star goes to you for recognizing that “Houston, we have a problem.” Knowing how to sound-out words is just the beginning, and it’s super-important that your son get over his reluctance to read. Why? Because the best thing a child can do to become a good reader is — read! Not do worksheets, not play word games, but read.
And your son is completely right – there’s a big difference between reading a single word and reading sentences. It’s hard work, and he’s perfectly sensible to expect a payoff for it. Unfortunately, he doesn’t think those easy-reader books provide that payoff. Some kids love them, and that’s great – those books will be their pathway into reading from the word “go” (or sometimes the words “Go dog Go”).
But other kids need a different first path: one with a different payoff that convinces them the work is worth it. Good teachers understand this, and so do researchers – well, some of them. A big-deal research report came out in 2000, by the National Reading Panel. http://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/nrp/report.cfm
Getting Kids to Want to Read
It spent a great many pages on the benefits of phonics – and I agree with the value of phonics skill. But buried in the back of the report was this sentence, which I wish had gotten as much press as the phonics part:
The teacher’s job is to create or allow situations where children want to read and are willing to work hard at it.
BINGO! This is the missing piece for too many readers! They never see enough payoff, so they just read the minimum time with the minimum effort they can get away with, and that’s not enough.
OK, now to your question – what exactly should you, the parent, do at this point? Keep in mind my advice in an earlier blog entry about using children’s interests to increase the payoff for easy books. But also:
What kinds of short, easy sentences could entice your son into reading? It’s OK to be sneaky here. Try the little trick of Treasure Hunt clues. Think of things your son wants – and hide them. When he comes home from school, say “Guess what! I made your favorite chocolate-chip cookies! But you have to find your snack, and here’s your clue.” Then hand him a message with a very simple sentence like “It is on a bed.” Help him sound out any word he needs help with. (Word of warning from experience: Make sure you don’t have a chocoholic dog in the house who might find the snack first.)
Use clues like these often, repeat words often, make the whole thing fun, and gradually expand the length of clues and difficulty of the words.
At the same time:
Think inside the book
As you’re reading those “regular” read-aloud books that your son loves, keep an eye out for simple phrases and sentences that he should be able to read with just a tiny bit of help, especially if these phrases or sentences occur at exciting moments in the story – or, for non-fiction, next to really cool pictures. Be sensitive to just how often you can ask him to do this work and still have your reading time be something he loves. Maybe it’s just once at first. Gradually expand as you go.
Think inside the game
And try ItzaBitza or ItzaZoo. It’s a dastardly sneaky way to entice children into the hard work of reading, because it’s just so darn fun. It gradually expands what it asks kids to read, and it always makes it easy to get help. It’s another pathway into reading that’s outside the book. And it might be just what your son needs to get over his aversion to sentences, build confidence, and be a better reader, so you can help him get inside books he truly loves.