What is often left ignored in our desire to teach reading is the reality that many times kids find themselves in a position, specifically older students, where they don't have time to learn how to read better. They need to get the information that is locked behind the book covers, in the least amount of time possible, so they can pass their class. I know that my success as a student had little to do with reading re-mediation -- I made it through college "reading" well over 5 books a week with a functional reading rate in the twelfth percentile. How did I do this? Simple: I learned to put aside the idea of becoming a "better" reader, and spent my time and energy learning how to be a smarter, more efficient reader. I learned to balance reading re-mediation with accommodations and alternative reading approaches.
My goal is not to outline a method for teaching reading, but to help you empower your child to read "smarter" and to develop individualized reading approaches. The following are the fundamental principles that will help you walk that fine line between reading re-mediation and reading accommodations. Finding the right balance between these two often-competing ideas will make all the difference in your child's success.
Principle #1: The Law of Diminishing Returns
One of the hardest things to do when it comes to helping your child with reading is to know when to stop teaching reading and to work around it with accommodations. There is no uniform answer to this; the law of diminishing returns can help you strike the balance. The law of diminishing returns is something that we violate when teaching reading all the time. This law is a pretty straightforward economic principle that states when you take any action, you judge the quality of that action and whether or not you will take that action again, by how large your gains are in relation to how much time you invested. The best actions are those that get good returns for a moderate amount of time spent. Once your returns start to shrink in relation to time spent, you've violated the law of diminishing returns, and it is time to do something different. For example, you put in 3 hours a week working on spelling. At the end of the week, your child's spelling scores increase 20 percent. That was a great use of your time. However, if you put in 20 hours a week on spelling and your child's test scores increased 2 percent that violated the law of diminishing returns.
My mom understood this law well when it came to reading -- in second grade I would be pulled out of class every day for an hour. I would try to draw words in the sand, and would build the words with blocks, I would do interpretive dance to get the words in, but my reading did not significantly improve given the we time spent. So my mom decided it was better to pick me up and take me out to lunch! The moral of the story is, when you do not get returns with your re-mediation that warrants the time invested, or when your returns seriously diminish, change what you're doing, stop re-mediating, and accommodate reading.
Principle #2: Embrace Reading Readiness
Every morning when I was in second grade and struggling to learn to read, my mom read me a book called Leo the Late Bloomer. In this book, Leo, a kid lion, can't read like the rest of his friends. But eventually, he catches up and blooms. The narration of a late bloomer is far from fiction -- it is a well-accepted fact in academic circles that kids hit their "reading readiness" at different ages, much like they progress through other developmental stages at different times. Embrace this, if your child is struggling with reading, tell them it is OK, you'll work on it, and you have faith that, like Leo and Jon Mooney, they will bloom in their own good time.
Principle #3: Let Your Children Choose What They Read
In my travels around the country, I hear all the time that some kids can't (or won't) read their school books, but then spend hours at home reading comics or the DMV manual to get ready for their driving tests. These kids are far from faking or lying about their ability to read what they like or their difficulty with reading what they don't like; they are just more able to read what they choose to read. These kids are intuitively tapping into something called pragmatic learning -- a simple idea that states that people are more likely to learn something that has meaning to them. You will find that kids are much more likely to engage with reading and will become better readers, if you let them choose the books they read. "See Spot run" is not fun for anyone.
Principle #4: Dispel the Reading Myths
There is a myth in our society that reading is synonymous with intelligence -- in my school we all knew that the "blue bird" reading group (might as well call it the ostrich group) was the "stupid group." It is really important to think about how this might have affected your child, especially if you are working with a teenager or a middle school student. Many kids, myself included, have a deep seeded fear of reading because we were tracked academically (those reading groups are tracks!) and defined as less than because we struggled with reading. Many students have accepted the blue bird identity by third grade and have given up on both reading and school. You have to actively address this with your child. You have to tell them that the way they were treated was wrong -- that often the most gifted kids struggle with reading.
Moreover, even when working with students that might be OK at reading, you have to help them understand the myth in our society that good students do all the reading in class, cover to cover. The reality is that the best students in college do not do all the reading; they learn how to skim and accommodate the amount of reading they are asked to do. The best way to kill these reading myths is to just be honest with your children. Tell them that there is no normal when it comes to reading.
With these four principles, here's what to do next:
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