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April 21, 2012

One tiny thing that helps kids read in a big way

By Carol Lloyd

Executive Editor

In my house, bedtime reading means squishing into my daughter’s bed and reading aloud until one of us (usually me) passes out. It’s lovely literacy-enriched cuddle time. But no one ever taught me how to do it right.

That’s because until recently there’s been very little evidence that there is a right way to do it. Before, the experts mostly implored parents: READ TO YOUR CHILD. Just spend 20 minutes. That’s all!

Johnny can't read and niether can his classmates

Many parents dutifully follow these vague directions – maybe not as much as they are supposed to – but research suggests that parents do read aloud regularly to their young children. And many kids learn to read despite this less-than-scientific approach. But a huge number don’t. According to a recent report from the Annie E Casey Foundation, only 32 percent of 4th graders are proficient in reading. That’s a devastating statistic if there ever was one.

Secret to teaching reading revealed!

There's a laundry list of social ills why American children struggle to learn even basic skills and it's hard to think ivory tower educational research can be their savior.  Still, I was excited to hear about new findings from a reading study conducted at the University of Ohio that uncovered a simple tip to help turn on kid’s reading brains.

Pointing out the obvious

The research which will be published in the April 2012 issue of the journal Child Development found that using “print references” (i.e. physically pointing out obvious things like “See how the beginning of dog starts with the d sound?” and “Look how I’m reading from left to right.”) during reading time makes a huge difference in how well kids learn to read. Studies by the same researchers have shown that untrained teachers reference print in this way about 8.5 times a reading session compared to trained teachers who do it about 36 times.  We parents only do it about once.

The study divided 300 academically at-risk preschoolers into three kinds of classrooms for a 30-week reading program.  In one group, teachers trained to use print references read aloud four times a week. In the second group, similarly trained teachers read aloud only two times a week, and in the control group, teachers read to their classes as they normally did four times a week. 

Improves reading comprehension too?!

After one and two years, the children who had been taught by teachers who read four times a week with print references were not only better at word reading and spelling, but here’s the weird thing: they had better reading comprehension, too! (Even the researchers seemed confounded by this.) Even the children who only got two days a week of print-referenced reading had slightly better skills than the children in the control group. 

This study seems so strange – could such a little shift change kids’ reading horizons so easily?  It reminds me how reading must start out as a completely baffling enterprise, a kind of magic haze that kids can spend years wandering in before they find a path. With those 100 billion neurons making connections at the speed of light, scaling a vast mountain of meaning and facts and skills, their brains need a foothold, and the more footholds you give them, the more progress they can make, letter by letter, word by word. 



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