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The Myth of Learn to Read/Read to Learn

By Laura Robb

For years, many elementary- and middle-school teachers have shaped their teaching practices around the deeply rooted myth of "Learning to Read and Reading to Learn." The fundamental premise of the myth is as follows: "Learning to Read" happens in the early grades (K–3) and consists primarily of decoding and memorizing basic sight words. "Reading to Learn" begins in fourth grade and consists mostly of reading for information. Although the myth and the practices associated with it do not by any means tell the entire reading story, they have influenced reading instruction in many classrooms for years. The problem? The myth and its practices aren't working. What many researchers have now shown is that for all children, learning to read and reading to learn should be happening simultaneously and continuously, from preschool through middle school — and perhaps beyond. And that's not all. Teaching comprehension has now emerged as a critical piece of learning to read, which the narrow emphasis on phonics and sight words in the early years of reading fails to address.

In grades 4–8, expectations for learners dramatically change. Teachers expect students to apply the sight-word and decoding skills, supposedly gained in the earlier grades, to new and challenging content-area information. However, many kids need more practice with these basic skills. They also need continued emphasis and instruction on interpreting and comprehending what they read.

How the Myth Developed Strong Roots

The myth took root in the early part of the 20th century with the introduction of phonics drills and skill sheets. Children practiced learning letter-sound relationships and memorizing spelling rules before doing any reading at all. With the 1930s came the look-say method, which advocated learning whole words children met in basal readers and on flash cards. However, the pendulum swung back in the 1960s, when much educational research concluded that children learn to read well only if primary programs emphasize systematic, explicitly taught phonics. In addition, a group of educators believed that reading comprehension could not be taught, but could only be "caught." How? The learner's intelligence and experience would enable him or her to catch meaning from a text.

New Directions in Research

During the past 20 years, research conducted by Marie Clay, P. David Pearson, and other educators has challenged the myth. Researchers have shown that good readers of all ages continually use what they know and have experienced to understand reading materials. As readers decode and link what they know to a book they are reading, they also use strategies such as making connections, predicting, questioning, and painting mental pictures — all of which enable children to become lifelong readers.

These researchers refuted the myth's focus on phonics and decoding skills only in the lower grades, as well as the expectation that children magically know how to "read to learn" by grade four. They showed teachers how comprehension strategies can and should be taught in grades K–8 and pointed out that while readers are decoding, they are also working hard to understand what they are reading.

Research's Positive Impact

Today, in many K–3 classrooms, children are learning to read and reading to learn at the same time, by practicing and applying reading strategies, as well as by deepening their knowledge of letter and sound relationships, word families, and spelling patterns.

In some upper-grade classrooms, teachers are using new practices. Reading-strategy lessons help students to comprehend, recall, and analyze information in fiction, nonfiction, and content textbooks. At this level, students practice decoding long, multisyllabic words and using clues in the text to understand new words. Learners expand their vocabulary by building words using prefixes, suffixes, and Latin and Greek roots.

Teachers also:

  • Enlarge students' background knowledge.
  • Preteach key vocabulary and concepts.
  • Show students how to monitor their comprehension.
  • Show students how to apply fix-up strategies, such as rereading and looking for clues, to figure out tough words.

Part of the Myth Still Persists

Despite what we presently know about effective practice, acceptance of part of the myth continues, particularly in the upper grades. Why? Lack of time is a key reason. Upper elementary- and middle-school teachers must cover large amounts of new material in 40- to 45-minute class periods; teaching reading strategies and word study takes away from that time. In addition, many middle-school teachers receive little preservice training in teaching reading. Positive change can occur with ongoing professional study programs. The goal is to help teachers learn about and translate reading research into classroom practices that meet the unique needs of all readers.

As we move beyond the myth, we can begin to base our reading instruction on sound, classroom-tested research. Students, from the youngest to oldest, will benefit.

Building Reading Skills

In Grades K–3:

  • Draw on and build children's knowledge base.
  • Help children understand narrative and expository text structures.
  • Set purposes for reading.
  • Make personal connections, as well as connections to other texts and issues.
  • Have students make and check predictions.
  • Discuss setting, characters, plot, outcomes, and any new information learned.
  • Use illustrations to teach children how to infer.
  • Model and teach children how to apply strategies such as predicting, questioning, retelling, and self-monitoring.
  • Teach new language patterns and words that are critical to the text.
  • Analyze new words in the text by comparing them to known words and patterns.
  • Use meaning, syntax, and pictures to solve word problems.
  • Analyze a new word by looking at and saying each letter or cluster of letters.
  • Reserve time for daily independent reading.

In Grades 4–8:

  • Build vocabulary by teaching roots, stems, prefixes, etc.
  • Teach students how to decode multi-syllable words.
  • Show students how to set purposes for reading.
  • Build background knowledge for students.
  • Teach the structure and parts of content textbooks.
  • Model and have students practice these strategies: predicting, questioning, making inferences, retelling, synthesizing and summarizing, and choosing essential details.
  • Teach fix-up strategies such as self-monitoring, rereading, close reading, thinking aloud, and questioning the author.
  • Build knowledge of the structure and elements of literary genres such as mystery, biography, other nonfiction, and more.
  • Show how to connect texts to self, friends, and community and world issues.
  • Analyze and compare texts to find common themes.
  • Reserve time for daily independent reading.

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Books for Professional Study:

Guided Reading: Making It Work, by Mary Browning Schulman and Carleen DaCruz (Payne, 2000)
On Solid Ground, by Sharon Taberski (Heine-mann, 2000)
Teaching Reading in Middle School, by Laura Robb (Scholastic, 2000)
Redefining Staff Development, by Laura Robb (Heinemann, 2000)

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Laura Robb is director of language arts and curriculum coordinator for the Powhatan School in Boyce, VA. She has more than 36 years of experience as a reading teacher.

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