The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Things I’ve Learned From our Youngest Readers

on March 19, 2019

by Dr Sam Bommarito

It’s said that the very best way to learn something is to teach it. That point was reinforced for me this week as I carried out my service for parent educators in a local district. So, what did I learn?

First of all, I learned just how important the idea that reading programs should be made to fit the the needs of the child really is. Nowhere is it more critical than with our youngest readers, who are at the ages of birth through three. Are the kids that young really readers? Yes, they are. But they can’t really read, can they? Well if you take the narrow view that reading is decoding, no they can’t.  But that’s not how I learned about what reading really is.

As part of my doctoral studies I ran the reading clinic at my university for a year. I did this under the supervision of one of my committee members. Back then when we tested a child in reading it was for listening comprehension, oral reading, and silent reading.  The composite of the three skills resulted in an overall estimate of the child’s ability to read. So back then we viewed the overall ability to listen to and learn from a passage as part and parcel of the reading process. But reading is so much more than just decoding the message.

It is part of their larger experience of learning all about their world and exploring it.  The key to this stage in the process of learning to read is that young children gain the background knowledge once called “The Concepts About Print” by Marie Clay. She was among the first to realize that there is a necessary step in the reading process that comes before learning the letters and decoding the message.  It is the step in which the reader learns how print works. In our culture, print moves from left to right carrying the message.

As I talked to the parent educators, I knew I was preaching to the choir on all those points. They knew that research shows the brain of a child in that early age group is not ready to learn letters and sounds. Going through this stage lays down the neural pathways that are needed to be successful later on when the time for more direct instruction comes, which is usually at age 4 or 5. That is why I cringe when I see the advocates of direct instruction telling parents to teach their preschooler the entire system of sounding out words. Doing what he suggests flies in the face of current brain research and of common sense. The fact remains that children need the discovery stage first if they are to succeed when the time does come for direct instruction. I did remember to say “laying down the needed neural pathways” didn’t I?!?

One surprise for me was that some parent educators found that even at a reasonable age some children were still “reluctant readers”. They didn’t seem to be interested in listening to a story for very long. Fortunately one of the parents provided the answer of what to do when that happened. On one of her visits, when a parent asked her why a certain baby did not seem interested in books, that child picked up the book she’d brought and started playing with it.  We must not expect children so young to sit and listen to long and involved stories.  Instead we should focus on providing them with all the experiences of dealing with print. Listen to the written word; talk about the written word. Learn to appreciate the wonders people created when they learned how to lay down the written word, so that wisdom could be passed on from generation to generation.So for me, the biggest takeaway from that session was the realization of just how smart move Marie Clay made all those years ago.  Long before brain research, she recognized the need to create a print-rich environment and a constellation of print experiences for young children. She laid the groundwork for giving the advice we now give to all parents of young children.  They should read to them, and talk to them about what’s been read and also make the reading experience positive by reading like a story teller. Also re-read those books to children. Just as the book I referred to at the start says “I love your voice and all that you say…”i.e.


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