Two Powerful Tools for Teaching Our Children to Read

In teaching students to read, educators must use the element of surprise, they must use it often, and they must balance it with the comfort of the familiar.

Of course, we must first teach children the basics of phonetics and phonemics, and enable them to decode words before we can ask them to do much else. The student must learn how to recognize each letter of the alphabet, and how these symbols translate into sounds in the spoken language. They must discover how we (sometimes quite randomly) put those letters together to form words, and how we put those words together to communicate ideas. Finally they must realize how we assemble those ideas into a cohesive article on why you simply must wear more spandex this year, or an advertisement for “Joe’s Mega-Hair Growth Formula,” or a simple story about a little engine achieving greatness through positive thinking (despite being an inanimate object).

All of these things will come as something of a surprise to the student because – unlike you and me – this is the first time they’re hearing that by drawing a short vertical line, then placing a dot above it, they just formed the lower case version of the letter “i” and they are just a “t” away from writing “it.” While there is an element of truth to the idea that this is surprising to students, pragmatically, it is an example of how we must make them comfortable and familiar with the foundations of reading.

The surprise of which I write comes in two distinct forms. The first, over which teachers have a measure of control, springs from the manner in which reading is taught. The second is a matter of leading students to their own surprising discoveries, and reinforcing them in the enthusiasm generated by these moments of personal discovery.

Simultaneously, the teacher must provide students with a learning environment in which they feel safe and comfortable, and in which they are encouraged to become familiar with ever higher levels of learning.

Surprise keeps proficient readers from becoming smug, lazy and bored; it gives the student facing reading challenges a compelling and enjoyable reason to persevere; it provides delight to every student when they realize their teacher is inviting them to have fun with the lesson, to be entertained by their own education. Those moments of discovery – so vital to instill enthusiasm in all scholarly endeavors – will occur naturally in a student’s academic life only so often. How much better is it to program them into a student’s day, to provide students with that spark they need to sustain interest and thereby connect to the greater concepts of which today’s lesson is merely a tiny part?

Let’s be honest. A whole lot of schoolwork itself is nothing but busy work. We can design a far more interesting curriculum without sacrificing rigor. Schoolwork need not be boring, consisting of mind-numbing repetitive tasks. Interesting problems and real academic challenges will always be better teaching tools than forcing students to diagram endless sentences. Sadly, is it all too rare that students feel their teacher wants them to delight in learning.

Students must become comfortable with the familiar pattern of their instructor being pleased that they have enjoyed the learning process. All too often, teachers rule over their classroom like capricious potentates, emphasizing discipline over honest intellectual exploration, sapping all joy from the educational experience, punishing those who dare to use their imaginations, and demanding students remain stationary and silent.

We now know children were right to refuse to eat liver, as it’s filled with toxins. More surprisingly, they were also right to squirm in their seats and complain when the teacher bored them. The use of movement is an astonishingly overlooked aspect of education. I confess that until as late as the previous school year, I felt that physical education was helpful only to the extent that it allowed me a free period to prepare a lesson plan. In fact, the development of student motor skills is directly linked to the development of their brain. The benefits are myriad.

Why? Because the part of the brain that processes movement is the same part of the brain that processes learning! Research now shows that children who engage in daily physical education show better motor fitness, better academic performance and better attitudes towards school. Working out your body better prepares your brain to respond to the challenges of the school day. Exercise can reduce stress, and chronic stress releases chemicals that actually kill neurons in the area of the brain used to store long term memory.

Bearing this in mind, I created the activity of “relay reading.” I station four students in each corner of the room with a set of cards, on which are printed words. I announce that we have a certain (enormously liberal) number of minutes to assemble the words into a short story. Students are surprised and delighted to learn that I want them to all but run in my classroom (after properly preparing it, removing all potential obstacles and hazards) to get one of the words from the stationed students and race it up to another student, who writes it on the board. The student then moves swiftly to tag the next student in his row of desks, who then retrieves and delivers the next word of the story. As reading is the fundamental key to all scholarly success, this physical component of education ultimately enhances the process of learning to read. It is a simple exercise that provides some physical exercise and an unusual amount of delight, and excitement, promotes teamwork amongst my students, as they work together to achieve the goal and beat the clock, and which fully engages them – by surprise.

The very nature of surprise stimulates the cerebral cortex and keeps us sharp. It aids in recall, and more attunes students to comprehension. The mind is never more fully engaged and open to grasp a concept than at those moments when the learning is a surprise, and is perceived as something fresh, exciting, new and relevant. The shock of the new requires the learning brain to engage in higher cognitive function such as analysis and application, and thereby to incorporate the newly learned material into the student’s newly expanded universe. This is particularly true in reading, as the very physical act can take our minds to worlds our bodies could not perceive or even survive. Though the words and paper are solid, they can transport us to abstractions of the universe that exist only in the inner reaches of pure thought, and that most definitely requires our greatest cognitive powers.

In providing surprises in the reading curriculum, we require student to receive and respond to new phenomena. The very nature of surprise invites excited discussion.

All of this must be balanced out with the comfort of the familiar to achieve a cohesive structure that both excites students and reduces their fears and anxieties. And why is that so important? Consider for a moment the fact that some of the most highly respected mathematicians of the 19th century refused to publish their work for fear of the ridicule it would engender in colleagues. These were grown men of some accomplishment and stature in their field. Yet they lacked that which a teacher must provide – the comfort of the familiar, the foundation of strength to be found in a place where pure learning is the goal and mistakes are not only tolerated, but expected as a part of the learning process. Students must always feel that they will not face ridicule from their classmates and most especially not from their teacher as they undertake the difficult task of learning this complex language.

If we’ve done things right, we’ve positively stimulated students with the shock of the new, while the comfort of the familiar – also known as “structure” – provides them clear expectations and goals, and clear rewards for achieving those goals. Structure provides students with a manner in which to value the lessons they are learning in their reading instruction. They internalize those values, as they see that they themselves are valued and rewarded for completing their assignments, for learning new things, for taking delight in so doing, and simply for giving an honest effort. It provides them with the comfort of the familiar, in which they may seek the surprise of the new – the new bit of learning that unlocks whole new realms of thought to them, that unleashes a lifetime of purpose, that provides them with the astounding discovery of who they are, and what’s important. In providing a child with the ability to read, we provide them with a lifetime of surprises, all presented through the comfortable, familiar symbols that form our alphabet and change everything.

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