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The Answer Is "You Can’t." But What Is The Question?

by Dr. Marion Blank

When Johnny Carson hosted the Tonight show, one of his routines involved playing Carnac, the Magnificent---a psychic who picked up a sealed envelope and divined the answer to the question inside. Then, when the envelope was opened and the question was revealed, the "answer" proved to be prescient --and funny. Here is a sample:

(Carnac holds the sealed envelope up to his turban)
Carnac: The American condor, the American eagle and the American car industry.
(Carnac rips the envelope open and removes the card)
CARNAC (reading): Name three things on the endangered species list.

Now, when the answer is "You can't," what might the question be? Although not humorous, it is "How can I get my child to love reading?"

This is a question parents ask over and over again. Their motivation is clear. Reading reflects a difficult pairing: on the one hand, children have to do it throughout the school year; on the other, they usually 'hate' doing it. So parents naturally think that 'if only the children loved to read, the problems would disappear."

That’s true--the problems would vanish were reading to be miraculously transformed into something children yearned to do. But it’s extraordinarily difficult to get a person to love something that they have already learned to dislike. So, except for a rare epiphany, it’s not going to happen.

When parents hear this, they’re often likely to follow up with, "Is it just this generation? Were children of years ago so different?" Here the answer is: "We don’t know." Records of hours spent reading were simply not kept. But in thinking about that time, it’s not hard to imagine that reading could very well have held a special place of honor. After a day of exhausting work on a farm (that’s where most people worked back then) or in a factory (that’s where the rest would be found), a book was truly a gem. It allowed entry into any world one chose to visit, real or imagined, that offered a range of pleasures--and escapes--found nowhere else. That’s why people in the generations before our own, would say things like "To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark."(Victor Hugo).

Nowadays, that excitement--and escape--is available in lots of places other than books. And the high-tech devices that deliver those pleasures are available 24-7, with an intensity unimaginable in earlier times.

None of this may be welcome news for parents. But, fortunately, it is not the total picture. There ARE solutions to the dilemma of having to read and hating to do it. It’s just that the solutions do not reside in the concept of love. So, the parents need to abandon a concept that is simply not going to pay off and shift their focus to other possibilities.

Where are these other possibilities? They are in the area of competence. Although it fails to receive the attention it merits, competence is a phenomenal force. When a person can execute a behavior with skill, that behavior rarely evokes a negative response. It may not be something one yearns for, but it is not something one tries to run away from. The key to reading --and writing--success rests with putting in place the skills that ensure competence.

Hard as it is to believe, the skills needed to ensure competence are almost never offered in school. The heart of reading instruction involves offering children what are thought to be the "building blocks"of reading (e.g., knowing their letters, their sounds, the rules, and so on). It’s assumed that once the children have those "blocks,"all they need do is spend the time using them. Smooth, competent reading will automatically follow. That’s why schools all over the nation feel comfortable relying on assignments where children are required to read 20 to 30 minutes a night. What better way to get them to practice the building blocks that have been supplied to them?

But sustained reading is effective only if a person’s error rate is close to zero. I often ask parents to determine what their child’s error rate is on the reading material they have to deal with. A remarkably high percentage of the time, the children’s error rates hover in the 20 to 30% range. (If you want to determine this for your child, provide a book that he or she has to read aloud for at least 10 minutes. Mark the errors—omissions and commissions, put that total over the number of words in the assigned passage and then calculate the percentage.)

If a child's error rate is higher than 3 to 5 %, the sustained nightly reading assignment is going to be, to a greater or less degree, a source of misery that actually exacerbates reading problems. For example one common pattern involves the following:

The child reads independently (i.e., no one is around to listen). If an error occurs, the child becomes aware of it only by recognizing that the text does not make sense. But the child does not know where the error occurred. So the only possibility for correction is to go back, hope it is back far enough, and start re-reading. There is no guarantee that this will work, but it is a reasonable "strategy" under the circumstances.

If this sort of pattern occurs once or twice in a ten minute period, things are manageable. But if it happens several times on a page, it is simply unbearable. The feeling that wells up is: "Why bother? All I ever do is read and then re-read and then re-read. Let me just get through this."

So the child "sensibly" adjusts the strategy by reading the words as quickly as possible so that at least the assignment is completed! As a consequence, the error rate skyrockets resulting in a strengthening of the error patterns and a crushing of reading comprehension.

There are other possibilities--none more successful than the other. For example, the parent might insist on being there to "help" and ensure that the reading actually happens. But errors work their effects here as well--so that the adult starts saying things like, "Wait. What’s that word? You know it. Come on, sound it out." From the child’s perspective, these well-intentioned suggestions are just additional evidence of the misery that reading brings.

So how is competence to be achieved? Here are 5 steps to help you get started.

  1. Whenever possible, for independent reading, have your child read only books that he or she cannot do almost perfectly. Do not permit books that evoke any noticeable level of error. (Of course, if your child is a great reader, you do not have to be concerned about this. But then you would not be among those asking: How can I get my child to read effectively?)
  2. For more difficult material, select books that evoke no more than about a 10% error rate in your child. Then plan to read that book with your child 3 to 4 sessions a week.
  3. For the sessions, read aloud a segment from that book. Then have your child re-read the same segment. (A segment is usually a paragraph.) If you are like most parents, your reaction to this is likely to be, "But, I’m telling him everything. How will he learn to do it on his own?"Remarkably, this technique, known under a variety of terms such as repeated reading or impress reading, is very effective. Humans do best when they have opportunities for pattern perception. Your modeling of smooth, correct reading serves to provide a range of patterns (in decoding, in speed, in tone, in emphasis) that your child can take in and build upon.
  4. After the segments for a session have been read (jointly by you and your child), have your child re-read all of them aloud in one steady flow. Depending on your child’s skill, this might be anywhere from 2 to 10 segments. Competence requires accurate, sustained reading. By re-reading, in a continuous manner, segments he or she has already read effectively, you are laying a major cornerstone in the foundation of competence.
  5. Your goal is to achieve a session lasting about 30 minutes. But you need to start at a level your child can manage. At the outset, that might be 10 or 15 minutes. Each week build that up steadily by 2 to 3 minutes. Within a month or two, you will reach your goal.
  6. Behavioral scientists have shown that it takes about a month of regular activity to change or establish a habit. So do not expect that the new routine will be totally smooth--and do not expect your child to immediately lose his or her repertoire of moans and groans about "Oh, no, not reading again."Don’t let comments like this upset you and don't try to "reason"your child out of them. Calmly maintain the new way as if all will be fine. Within 4 to 6 weeks, you and your child are likely to see clear signs of progress. Like a weight-watcher seeing the numbers on the scale go down, that progress is a marvelous reinforcement. It may not be the same as "loving to read,"but it’s still phenomenally empowering.

Dr. Marion Blank is a world-renowned authority on how children learn to read with over 40 years experience in the field. She is the creator of the Phonics Plus Five reading & wrting program available for sale on her site. To read more articles by Dr. Blank, please visit her blog and join her newsletter.

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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