53. A Print-Rich Environment

When I first started teaching elementary school, a good friend of mine said the best way to teach reading was to give a child books that were interesting. I knew better. I knew that people had developed all kinds of sophisticated techniques to help children break the complicated code that was the English language. My friend was not a teacher, did not want to be one, did not even like going into schools
And so I paid lots of tuition, attended classes, wrote papers, read studies, sampled reading programs, and taught. I bet you’ve already guessed how this story will end. Last week, a good friend (not the same friend) told me about research showing that the best single indicator of potential success in learning to read is the degree to which the child’s environment is print- rich. In schools, this means the quality of the school library, in particular.
My friend is a school librarian, so I did take the information with the obligatory grain of salt, but all the worksheets, basal readers, phonics workbooks, teachers’ guides, new programs, and all paraded by my mind as I thought about all the teaching I’d done over the years. I think they were laughing at me. After the parade had marched by, a child was sitting on the curb, reading a book. I think this child was struggling with a word or two, but the book was interesting, and worth the struggle. It was embarrassing.
I always tried to have a print-rich environment at home and in school. I frequented libraries in and near the towns I lived in, and once a week, checked out twenty books for my class and twenty for my own children. When my children were in or near the grades I was teaching, there was plenty of overlap. But I didn’t know this was teaching reading. I thought it was giving children a break from reading instruction.
I’d like to say that I knew all along that providing good books was the best approach. Maybe deep inside I did know, and that was my unconscious motivation for the approximately 1,000 trips to libraries during my career as an elementary school teacher. But I have to admit that all the forces advocating phonics, sight word drill, etc. made significant impressions on me, and I always felt a little guilty, a little paranoid, when I let children just read.
I apologize to that friend who was there when I started teaching young children to read. Your instincts were right. The best way to teach children to read, I think, is to make sure they have plenty of access to books they want to read.

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