591. How I Help Children Read

As we teach children to read, we try to get them to do so independently. We teach them various strategies they can use to figure out words they don’t know. They can use context or phonetic clues. They can take words apart, figure out the parts, and then put them together again. Some teachers have approaches they always use with all children. Others tailor their approaches to individual children. And I’ve seen success both ways.
As a volunteer, I don’t always have time to find out what approaches a teacher is using. Some teachers ask me to drop in when I can, and listen to children read. When a teacher asks me to do that, she/he understands that I’m not going to spend much time finding out which approaches to use. I use my own approaches – sometimes approaches I didn’t and couldn’t use as a teacher in charge of a class, but was able to use with my own daughters.
What I do is mostly listen. Once in a while, I ask a question. I do that to make sure the child understands what he or she is reading, but my tone of voice doesn’t sound pedagogical – just interested. For example, in a genuinely curious tone of voice, I ask, “Why did he or she (a character in the book) do that?” Or “What’s gonna happen to her/him?” Since the child has been reading the book and I haven’t, these questions sound and are fairly honest.
If a child’s teacher hears a child having trouble decoding a word, he or she has a pretty good idea of what
to do. Maybe it’s a word the child knows, and there’s a way to gently remind her/him. Maybe there’s recently been a lesson giving children a specific strategy for decoding. There are lots of effective ways to teach children to read, and as a volunteer, I don’t always know which ways teachers have used.
My approach with an individual child who is having trouble decoding a word is to start to say the word, hoping that the child will use whatever strategies he or she has learned, and take over. Children know I’m a teacher; they don’t think I actually have that much trouble decoding words. But it’s nice to pretend that I’m the one who needs help decoding and the child is the expert. If that doesn’t work, I finish saying the word. Spending too much time on one word tends to distract readers from the content of what they’re reading.
Sometimes I negotiate with a child: I’ll read to her/him a little if he or she will read to me a little. If a child is having real difficulty reading, too much can be too much. Learning is supposed to be fun, and if a certain kind of learning starts to feel like torture, learners are probably going to want to stop doing it. Maybe they’ll keep glancing at the clock, looking forward to some learning they’ll do at recess – improving their jump shots or whatever.
I enjoy helping individual children who are learning to read, and I think they enjoy it, too. And if you don’t already do this, maybe it’s something you’d enjoy, too.

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