I Never Met a Child Who Couldn't Already Read

What is reading? Here is a story from my kindergarten class:

On the first day of the year, my assistant and I sat on the floor with our 16 students, most of whom had attended our pre-k program. We introduced ourselves to whatever degree was comfortable, and everyone relaxed. When I introduced myself, I included telling my class why I do what I do (and it isn't exactly teaching as we know it from our school experience, so I avoid the term teach and teacher. See post on Why Stop Teaching?). I said, "I come here to this class because I really enjoy having fun, learning, and being with other people who are learning new things and like to play. And I wouldn't come here if that weren't happening." Then I said that we would be learning about a lot of things, and that what they were interested in was even more important than what I was interested (though one of the things that I was interested in is what they were interested in). Then I had the following conversation and demonstration (which, by the way, is what teaching means).

I started with: "One of the things we are going to learn about is reading." Note: I always pause frequently when I talk with young children - their processing of language takes quite a bit longer than does ours).  "So, if you already know how to read, raise your hand." No hands went up. I thought that maybe they were a little shy, so I asked the same question this way: "Okay, good. Now, if you DON'T know how to read, raise your hand," and every hand went up!

"Okay, good." I reached for my pen and held it up in front of them and asked, "What is this?" And they responded, "a pen!"  I held up a sheet of paper and asked, "Okay, what is this?" and they said "Paper!" I did the same with a crayon, a cup, and a hat, and they all answered. Then I said this: "You 'read' what these things were. You couldn't reach and touch them, you couldn't smell them, I didn't make any noise with them so you couldn't hear them, and ... did you taste them?" "NO!" they replied. Then I said, "You saw them and READ them." Then I did the same thing again with a pencil, and eraser, I pointed to the clock and the window, and they answered accurately. I repeated, "You read them."  I paused for a bit.

Then I asked, "How many of you know how to read?" All hands went up! I had just verified my strong suspicion about young children and learning: they learn much more from us than we think, way more. And one of the things they learn from us (via what I call "inadvertent  teaching") is that they do not know how to read. My further suspicion is that neither do we, whether we are parents, teachers, and/or even reading teachers. What I do know is that in about five minutes 16 children went from "not being able to read" to "already reading." But I'm not finished ...

Now I asked, "How many of you know how to read words?" About four hands went up, and each told me what the could read: "mommy" "open" "milk" "McDonalds." "Yes, thanks!" I said, "and one thing we are going to do is learn to read 'words'."  I held up a few.  I said, "A word is a shape that means something else."  Then I held up a picture of a cat, and asked, "What is this?" And the all said, "It's a cat!" And I said, "No, it is a PICTURE of a cat, yes? I mean, can this cat run around and eat catfood?"  "NO!" "That's right ... it is not a cat but it is a picture of a cat - this picture means "cat."  Then I held up the word "cat" in large, lowercase letters. I said, "This is the 'word' 'cat'. It means the same thing as the picture but doesn't say what color or kind of cat it is." I put the word down, paused, and then picked it up again. I asked, "What does this word 'say'? and many if not most said, "cat!" "Yep!" I said, "And that is reading a word!" 

Finally, I said: "You will see many words everyday, everywhere. Do you know the best way to find out what a word 'says' if you don't know?" I paused. One said, "Ask the teacher!" I responded, "Yes, you can ask a teacher, if one is nearby.  And, you can ask anyone - lots of people around you already know a lot of words: your mom or dad, or big sister or brother, your neighbor, and even other friends in this class, so you can ask anyone. And in our class, when you ask someone a question, their job is to answer you. And if someone asks you something and you don't know, then what do you say?"  There were some questioning looks, meaning that they have already learned that saying "I don't know" is not a highly acceptable answer. I said that here, when anyone asks you a question and you don't know the answer, it's easy. Just say, "I don't know."

So that is my philosophy of how to/how not to, "teach" reading. But there is a seriously strong obstacle to actually doing this. It has to do - again - with what has already been learned. And only you, as a parent, can do something about this.  See post on How We Teach Reading.