The Center for Public Education states, “Reading is the Open Sesame for acquiring knowledge: learn to read, and you can read to learn just about anything.” Children begin the process of learning to read long before entering school as they acquire vocabulary and background knowledge. But when they enter school, it is not long before they can and must use reading skills and strategies to learn all about the world around them in every subject and content area.
Teaching Reading and Comprehension Skills
Reading is a complex process, involving skills such as decoding, making predictions and asking questions. Good readers know sight words, use context clues to understand unfamiliar vocabulary and reach into their background knowledge to make connections from what they know to what they want to learn.
Teaching children to read is a complex process, too. Students come to the classroom with a variety of abilities and learning styles. Many factors affect early learning, including a child’s experiences, family dynamics, and health and nutrition. And those who teach reading at any level must help children of every learning style and ability acquire the skills required to comprehend text in all subject areas. According to the National Academies Press, “Teachers of reading are called on to prepare students to interpret complex ideas, critically analyze arguments, synthesize information from multiple sources, and use reading to build their knowledge.”
The impact a teacher can have on a child’s ability to read and therefore be more successful in school can’t be underestimated. According to literacy educator, Laura Robb, teachers are irreplaceable, because unlike “computers and robots, when you possess deep knowledge about how children learn, you can process students’ actions, words, and written work and provide feedback that moves each child forward.”
While the traditional theory that children learn to read in the primary grades and read to learn in later years is somewhat controversial, the bottom line remains the same: Children who can read fluently will be more successful in school.
Reading in Content Areas
In a seminal article in The Reading Teacher Magazine, author and professor of literacy education Barbara Moss states, “The ascendance of standards-based education throughout the United States has clearly helped heighten interest in students’ ability to read informational texts. In almost every state, language arts standards related to reading and writing informational-text genres now appear at kindergarten and extend through the high school level. Requirements that teachers address these standards at every level have made educators more aware of their importance.”
Reading and comprehension skills in math class have become an area of particular concern. Teachers report that it is not uncommon for students who excel in math to complain about “word problems.” Students who may be able to calculate arithmetic problems and break records in “Mad Math Minute” exercises may read through a standardized test problem and say, “I don’t know what to do!”
Teachers are facing the fact that real-life problems involving math knowledge are seldom presented as a worksheet full of four-step multiplication problems. Instead, in contemporary test settings where students are asked to evaluate and solve realistic problems, students’ reading skills must support grade-level math ability. According to the Intercultural Development Research Association, “Reading and writing activities can help students analyze, interpret and communicate mathematical ideas. These are skills needed to evaluate sources of information and the validity of the information itself, a key competency for mathematically literate citizens.” In response to what she sees as the increasingly abstract nature of math curriculum, math coordinator Allesandra King has students work on projects that engage both, as reading and writing “are complex, fundamental, integrative learning skills that should be used to their potential in math class.”
In addition to using reading and writing skills in math, the skills required to process both math and reading are very similar. The ability to predict, infer, compare and contrast and determine cause and effect are necessary to work through both math problems and intricate reading passages. When a student is successful in one area of learning, it is more likely they will be able to transfer some of their skills to another area. At the elementary level, this ability to transfer builds a foundation of understanding and independence that will serve young students well as they mature and progress.
Consequences of Illiteracy
For most students, the ability to read is foundational to a successful education. Tomie dePaola, author and illustrator of over 200 children’s books, once said, “Reading is important, because if you can read, you can learn anything about everything and everything about anything.”
Since the federal government started tracking student achievement in 1971, scores have not much changed. While fourth grade reading scores have increased slightly due to literacy instruction efforts, they remain low. This deficit follows students throughout their school careers. According to recent research by ACT, “roughly half of high school graduates lack the reading skills needed to do well in a typical first year college course.” Only 34% of eighth graders read and write at a proficient level according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress. The long-term consequences of illiteracy go beyond the school experience, impacting the individual’s quality of life for the rest of their lives.
Value of Independent Reading
The ability to read influences more than graduation rates. People of all ages who read fluently are more likely to read independently, and the benefits of reading independently extend far beyond academic success.
Students who read independently and fluently are more likely to attend college or engage in professional trades. The National School Board Association (NSBA) gathered data supporting the conclusion that adults with low reading skills are more likely to experience poor health, be unemployed, or, if employed, earn much less than those with high reading skills. Unfortunately, the NSBA also reports that “adults with the lowest literacy skills are the least likely to engage their own children in activities that promote literacy development, such as reading to them or playing rhyming games.”
As literacy experts Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst write in Literacy Today, independent reading “is about creating independent thinkers who think with compassion, logic, and curiosity, and without manipulation from others.” They emphasize the need to allow students as much freedom as possible in the process, which helps nurture independent thought and a life-long interest in reading.
Experienced teachers who want more in-depth study about reading and comprehension can earn a post-graduate degree such as the Master of Education in Elementary Education from Mississippi College. This NCATE-accredited program will reinforce the skills necessary to help you launch your students into a more successful personal and professional future.
Learn more about the MC online M.Ed. in Elementary Education program.