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Foundations of Reading: Change Everyday Moments into Robust Literacy Lessons

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I see reading lessons everywhere I look: at the grocery store, driving around town, hiking a coastal trail, waiting for the bus, and of course, on a cozy couch.

By taking advantage of these everyday reading opportunities, teachers and parents can find engaging teachable moments that foster language-rich environments and help children become more confident, avid, and independent readers. Wrapping fun word activities into the daily routine, carving out time for shared reading, and understanding the importance of social and emotional development can help foster a love of reading, even for a student who isn’t self-motivated to read for pleasure.

Your two-year-old doesn’t jump on your lap because of the book you’re holding. She jumps on your lap to be close to you, and she knows you’re going to give her your attention and time. You’re not going to go do the dishes or go on your computer. Over time then, she associates that wonderful feeling of being with you with this activity called reading and identifies that cardboard tool as something called a book.

In my book, Book Smart: How to Develop and Support Successful, Motivated Readers (Oxford University Press 2014), co-written with Jamie Zibulsky, we focus on the early years, which are critical for building reading and language acquisition that leads to long-term reading success.

There are powerful things that teachers and parents can do at this stage. The idea is that when you’re always bathing children with language, always asking questions, always sharing information, then those children will come to possess a high linguistic background. It’s that background—along with vocabulary acquisition, comprehension, and general knowledge—that sets them up for success in upper grades, where critical thinking and reasoning skills become more important.

I encourage teachers and parents, even those with older students, to read aloud to and with children—every day. I’ve had parents and even teachers look at me quizzically and say, ”You are telling me to read to my junior high school student?“ Yes!

Every student benefits from being read to, using content that is at least two years ahead of their current reading level. This approach is ideal for exposing students to rare and unique words, phrases, and concepts that are typically only found in text. Consequently, a particular word/phrase will become familiar to them and exist in their oral lexicon. When the reader comes upon this word/phrase on their own without any scaffolding or support, it won’t be a nonsense word or a completely novel idea or term, and comprehension will not be compromised.

Tools of Engagement

A vexing problem for all educators is the student who knows how to read but chooses not to read for pleasure. There are numerous, highly effective ways to engage that student, starting with finding books that speak to their interests. Playing an audio book to build language and background knowledge while the child is engaged in another activity—like drawing, putting together a puzzle, or building with Legos—also works well. I have tested children on their knowledge of an audio book that they listened to while multitasking and found that they retained the story and its details successfully.

Whatever activities teachers and parents choose, they should be used early and often. It will pay dividends later on in the upper grades, when the language requirements for reading and writing explode. I call it the sleeper effect. In Grades K–2, the text tends to be simpler. The words and the length of sentences are smaller and generally exist in the student’s oral lexicon. But around third grade, the text quickly becomes more sophisticated. Multisyllabic words are the norm, along with dependent clauses and coordinating conjunctions such as and, but, nor, and however. At an early age, it’s “Once upon a time… .” In fourth grade, it’s “This proposition is… .”

I will discuss these topics and strategies in greater depth in my upcoming webinar, providing you with more insight on how reading aloud to your students and encouraging them to read independently will pay off in a big way.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Want to learn more about how to help children become more confident, avid, and independent readers? Register here for Dr. Cunningham’s webinar, “Foundations of Reading,” on July 23 at 12 p.m. ET.

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