Sunday, January 06, 2013

Complexities of Learning to Read

This morning I headed down to our phenomenal book room to find some new books for my guided reading groups. I was looking for titles at pretty early reading levels (about end of kindergarten, early first grade benchmarks).

In spite of the wealth of titles in our book room, I struggled to find good books for my little readers. Many of my students speak English as a second language (or 3rd or 4th). They are still gaining vocabulary and a firm understanding of the language structure. As a result, some books are much more challenging than their level would suggest.

When kids are learning to read there is so much going on, so much that we take for granted once we learn to read. They are thinking about how the words look, how the sentences are formed and organized, and the meaning behind the text. It's a bit overwhelming when you step back and analyze it.

Learning to read is much easier for students who have a lot of vocabulary, lots of background knowledge about things, and have a solid understanding of the structure of the language.

I rejected books today because they had unusual animals in them, like slugs or because they called animals by less common names, hen rather than chicken. These words are unlikely to be known by my students.

I rejected books that rhyme because creating that often involves using words or language structures that are not typical in our spoken language.

I rejected books because they involved activities or places that my students are unlikely to know anything about, such as riding a train or New York City. The vocabulary and ideas become challenging when one has no background knowledge.

These are not bad books. (Well, some of them are but not really for these reasons.) They are not even books that are impossible for my darlings to read, they are just much easier for some kids to read than others. My little first graders are pretty brilliant. They have a lot of background knowledge about certain things but not always the things that are valued by publishers of early reader books. They can speak multiple languages, something I, sadly, can't do. They will learn to read, I have no doubt of that. I'm just acutely aware of all the challenges facing them in that process.

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