Absolutely! Students do understand texts that are read aloud to them that are above their independent reading level. But if they are struggling to read text on their own that is too difficult for them to decode, they will not have good comprehension. Struggling students in the upper grades are increasingly expected to read texts that are above their level of reading ability, because they need to learn complex subjects. This presents a problem. Does it make sense to require students to read texts that are above their independent reading level?
Some teachers understand the futility of requiring reading at a level that is above a student’s ability, so they look for and assign books at the students’ actual reading level. These teachers sometimes endure criticism for doing what they believe is best for their students.
With so many struggling readers in our schools, we ought to be looking at why we have this problem. We first fail when teaching our children basic reading instruction. There are many reasons why children fail to learn to read, including bad reading programs and inconsistent attendance. But we continue to pass children who have not learned basic decoding skills on to the next grade level. Then we blame the teachers in the upper grades when their struggling students fail to progress.
Students need to learn to read well by the end of first grade! If a student is not progressing, change the program. Students who are not reading well by early to mid-first grade should be given a phonics reading program that includes all of the Orton-Gillingham phonograms, and that uses those phonograms in decodable stories. Nearly all struggling readers who are taught to read this way can learn to read.
Students can comprehend texts that they cannot read on their own. The short term fix may include reading grade level texts aloud to students who are struggling. But to be successful, students need to be able to read on their own. When students read texts independently, they will only comprehend what they can quickly and easily decode. We may provide accommodations for struggling readers, but we owe it to them to teach them how to read for themselves.
School age children like to listen to more complex stories that are above their actual reading level. Reading books that are above your children’s reading level will help to increase their vocabulary. Even though they can read for themselves, older children enjoy having longer stories read aloud to them. If they read well, they may enjoy taking turns reading aloud with you.
There are so many good books that any list can only be an introduction. The first books on this list are short and easy (try other books by these authors as well); the rest are chapter books and series of books that you can read in installments. You can get them from the school library or the public library.
Here are a few favorites:
- If You Give a Mouse a Cookie / If You Take a Mouse to School (Books by Laura Numeroff)
- Arthur (Books by Marc Brown)
- A Boy in the Doghouse (Betsy Duffy)
- How to Eat Fried Worms (Thomas Rockwell)
- The Boxcar Children (Series by Gertrude Chandler Warner)
- Ramona / Henry and Ribsy / The Mouse and the Motorcycle (Books by Beverly Cleary)
- The Indian in the Cupboard (Series by Lynne Reid Banks)
Reading aloud together is an adventure!
Why is the whole word method of learning to read so difficult? Students who read whole words as a unit and who have not learned decoding skills must memorize each and every one of the thousands of words they will eventually need to know in order to be capable of reading well. To be able to read at a first grade reading level, a student needs to memorize about 2,000 to 3,000 words. This is the number of whole words an average student can retain. And a student will need to memorize about 5,000 words to get to a third grade reading level (McGuinness, Carmen and Geoffrey; Reading Reflex; 19, 37). This is why students who appear to read well in first grade begin to experience reading difficulty around the third grade.
One problem with teaching students to read each whole word as a single unit is that many words look very similar to other words when viewed as a unit. This leads to many reading errors and low comprehension of the text. Students who view words as a whole have been taught to look at the beginning and ending letters as well as the overall shape of the word to figure out the word. This becomes problematic very quickly and results in students who struggle to read even simple words. Take a look at the shape of these words:
These words look very similar to beginning readers as well as to struggling readers. Unless a student is taught to pay attention to every letter from left-to-right in each of these words, and especially to the vowel in the middle of the word, he will not be able to read these words accurately.
Each of the following words contains the exact same letters, but not in the same order, and they have very different meanings:
When words get longer and more complex, it is even more difficult to read unless students have learned to decode and read the entire word letter-by-letter. As students get older, they often use context to decide what the word is. This works only part of the time, resulting in poor reading comprehension.
Look at the shape of these words as well as the first and last letters:
Students who struggle to read will find that reading these words accurately is quite difficult:
However, once we teach these same students what to pay attention to, reading becomes easy. They often ask why no one has taught them this before. In Part 3, we will talk about phonetic decoding and why it’s important for students to learn how to do this.