Monday, August 15, 2005

What Should Children Do After Phonics?, Thoughts on Worksheets, Reading Comprehension Textbooks, and Narration

I think it is safe to say that the majority of homeschoolers who teach their children to read are using the phonics method, and most are using some type of phonics curriculum. Some parents are using a combination of sight reading and phonics as outlined in the book “Teach a Child to Read with Children’s Books” by Martin Thogmartin.

Another segment of homeschoolers want their children to teach themselves to read and use no curriculum and do no teaching of reading. These families are more lax and don’t want to coerce or push their children to sit for a phonics lesson, and they are content with waiting until 8-12 until their child learns to read. I have never talked to or read of a family whose child was not reading by 13, that is why I put 12 as the top age range.

Anyway my point is that once a family is done with the phonics curriculum and the child is reading fluently or reading by sounding words out, the question comes up, what next?

The answer is simple: the child needs to practice reading.

Some children take off with reading and are instant bookworms. They have their head in books all the time. Not all children are like this, and it is no fault of the parents, in most cases! Some point a finger to the parents such as saying the home is not filled with books, the child was pushed to watch too much TV, is playing video games (a little or a lot) and/or has their face in front of a computer screen too much. This is not always the case, sometimes a child lives in a home where the parents read, where thousands of books are all around, TV is limited, video games are practically non-existent. (Yes, I am talking about my own family situation here.)

So the next thing that is sometimes asked, if that the child is not initiating their own reading, so then what? The phonics curriculum is done, now what?

Almost every homeschooling parent who has discussed this with me is shy or worried about mandating reading for practice, for their children. I used to feel this way also. The issue is now that we taught them to read, we want them to love to read, pick up books on their own (preferable quality books that progress in difficulty level). We don’t want to force them or coerce them, lest they begin to hate reading. Hating reading is something that I think that every homeschooling parent does not want their child to feel.

I would guess that even the most lax homeschooler would say that in the best case scenario, they hope their children end up with very good reading skills and also a taste for high quality reading materials (i.e. the classics). Many of us would also like to know that our child is reading above grade level. Even the self-labeled ‘radical unschoolers’ I know like to brag that although their children were 9 or 10 or 11 or 12 when they began reading, they went, in a few months, to adult-level reading material, with ease.

When I looked into what schools do, I saw that they practice phonics through the end of third grade. What does this mean, exactly? It means they have their children do simple phonics worksheets to reinforce the phonics rules. When I look at these, they are so simple that I feel it is an insult to the child. My teacher-friends say, “worksheets are busy work, they keep the kids busy while I need them to be busy (in order to get other work done). I was surprised the first time a teacher asked me why homeschoolers would bother to do worksheets, as they viewed them as worthless as far as academics are concerned.

Some homeschoolers have their children practice reading by doing phonics worksheets as well. One glance at the Rainbow Resource Center catalog shows many offerings of phonics practice materials. I had actually bought some of these in the past based on the assumption that children need them, and based on positive product reviews, but once I looked at them, I felt they were too simple and I wouldn’t have my children use them.

Some schools use the workbook series "Explode the Code”. I know a few homeschoolers who also use this program. Those who use it love it. I hate the series. The exercises are the same throughout the series. There are two sentences, usually of silly content. Then there is a tiny illustration drawn by a child. The student is to circle the sentence that goes with the drawing. My issue with these is that the child can sometimes read just one word of the sentence, such as the noun or the verb, and know which sentence is correct. The sentences are sometimes really silly, and not anything like a real person would talk.

I also know of one local private school which charges $30K per year for first grade, and uses these books as their entire reading lesson! The boy I knew who attended the school was not reading fluently, but was doing the workbook pages. The problem is that the students were to read to themselves, so no adult ever heard them reading to see if they were reading words correctly, or if they were guessing at the answers. With a 50/50 chance of getting it right, guesswork is simple. This is yet another example of how a teacher assessing what a student knows by evaluating his written work is not always accurate.

Practicing Reading by Reading
I decided that my children should reinforce their reading skills by reading. Wow, what a concept. Since neither of my children were picking up books to read spontaneously, on an everyday basis, I choose to mandate reading. I see it as another homeschooling lesson. They are responsible to learn to read and they have to practice at it to get better.

For the record, my kids don’t hate reading. My older son would prefer to play with LEGOs all day (or any type of building toy). My younger son is happy with a bunch of different toys and is still immersed in the pretend play stage.

Duration of Reading Practice
For my older son, who finished Alpha Phonics during first grade, I had him read 20 minutes per day. For second grade, I upped the time to 30 minutes. If we skipped some days for some reading a vacation, I’d have him read for 40 minutes for a few days. Note that when we were doing Alpha Phonics, the lessons were 10 minutes or less in duration, per day. I stopped after one lesson or before frustration set it. I was also using the Charlotte Mason guideline for “short lessons” for this age.

For my younger son, who finished Alpha Phonics during his four year old preschool year, I had him read for 15 minutes per day. Note that when we were doing Alpha Phonics, his lessons were 25-50 minutes in length, as that is what he begged to do. This son was not interested in what Charlotte Mason recommended for short lesson times!

I decided that I’d rather keep lesson times short and not add on additional workbook pages to their schedules.

By the way, I had asked my reading-specialist teacher-friend how long children should read. She said that once a child is beginning to read, they should be reading 20 minutes per day, at home, 365 days per year. She then said that she doesn’t think any child was really doing this. She struggles to get the parents of struggling readers to do their mandatory homework reading practice. She explains to them, as she did to me, that one on one time with her in the classroom a few times a week is not enough to teach them to read, to get them up to speed with their peers. She explains that each child needs practice, and needs the reinforcement of the concepts that were taught in the classroom. She also said that when (non special-education) students return to school in the fall, it is apparent that many/most have lost some of their reading ability, due to not reading over the summer. So I decided to try and have my children read aloud for 20 minutes per day (at least). I also feel happy and confident knowing that my homeschooled children are probably getting more reading practice than their schooled peers.

I also wonder if the issue with schooled children not being able to read well is the fault of the parents not having them practice reading. Everyone points to the teachers and the schools as the cause of it. I am no longer so sure about this assumption! But I digress!

Choosing Books for Them to Read
At first we use the leveled readers, such as “Step into Reading, Step 2”. I have been buying these, used, at library book sales for 10-25 cents each. I like to have them on hand. I also have borrowed some from the library. Each child has their own shelf or a basket. I put the books for their level in their spots. For their reading time, they can choose from those books.

I also own some old school textbook readers, given to me, left over from my own childhood, or purchased at used book stores or at library book sales. Sometimes my children read from these books.

Letting them select their own books gives them a little choice in the matter which they both like. A fellow homeschooler gave me this basket idea, and it has worked well.

I have boxes on the dining room floor and we toss the ‘already read’ book into the box. One child refuses to ever read a book a second time, and the other wants to read favorites over and over, but the rest are read just once.

As a child finishes a level, I move up to the next level.

In their spare time, they do read things of their choosing, often picture books, LEGO catalogs, Highlights, and Boys’ Life (a Cub Scout magazine).

Reading Comprehension
Next up, some homeschooling parents feel the need to include a lesson on reading comprehension. To meet this need, there are curriculum sources for homeschoolers. Again, just look at the Rainbow Resource Center’s catalog or website and you will find some.

Before committing to using a reading comprehension curriculum, I’d like you to consider why these exist. These programs exist out of a necessity for classroom teaching. I don’t think they are necessary for homeschoolers. Why?

I don’t think it is possible and I have never heard that in reality, a school teacher sits and reads with a child each day, one on one (aka ‘tutor’ style). Also it is not possible for a school teacher to talk to each student about what the student has read, to assess their comprehension level. To figure out what a child has gleaned from reading, reading comprehension questions were added to school textbooks.

A few years ago I was helping a relative clean out her garage. There was a very old story book from the 1910s. I read the little story. I was surprised to find reading comprehension questions at the end, because I didn’t realize the book was a textbook. The crazy thing was that I couldn’t answer any of the questions. I could tell you the entire plot and action moments, but I couldn’t answer those questions! Some examples were “what color was the hat that the man was wearing” and other details which I did read but thought were unimportant to commit to memory. This illustrated for me, how getting the reading comprehension questions right OR wrong may not be an indication of what the child truly knows. As with all testing, the questions that are asked are not always a true representation of what the test-taker knows.

In the homeschool environment, I prefer narration to test reading comprehension. I am just not worried about reading comprehension. I am more concerned with the higher-level content that I read aloud and how well that is understood and remembered. Therefore I place a higher priority status on listening to me read a history selection aloud, then hearing a narration on it. When I have asked questions or asked for a narration on a story that my children have read, I get very detailed information back, which proves to me that they comprehend it.

I have also read some of the textbooks which exist for the purpose of giving children ‘grade leveled’ reading material with reading comprehension questions. I find that the quality and depth of those reading selections is poor or low. The narrations that come from such readings are sketchy, since the text is sketchy; they are not a reflection of poor reading comprehension on the part of my children. Garbage in, garbage out.

I respect homeschooling parents right to decide what they think is right and best for each of their children. I don’t care what other parents do with their children, whether they taught with phonics or not, whether their child was 4 or 6 or 12 when they began to read. I really don’t care. I support our freedom to choose what we think is best. What I would like, though, is for homeschooling parents to consider the reasons why schools teach in certain ways and not to assume that duplicating their systems is best, in a home environment. If reading is a skill that needs practice I don’t see anything wrong with mandating the child practice it (just as they practice math skills). If you also feel that reading comprehension exercises in the home school are silly, then perhaps you should ponder ditching them in favor of something else more worthwhile, such as 20 minutes of reading aloud from a wonderful chapter book (which is above their reading level).

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