Small changes in how teachers read books to preschoolers can potentially have long-term effects on the children’s reading skills, says research published in the journal Child Development. The changes call for teachers to draw young children’s attention more to the actual words in books, says NPR:
For the study, they gave two groups of preschool teachers books for an entire school year — 30 weeks’ worth of books. One group was told to read the books normally; the other was given weekly cards with specific questions the teacher could ask — really just small phrases — that might momentarily draw a child’s attention to the print on the page.
The teachers were told to read their books four times a week, and to point out the print in this way between four and eight times, so that together the small phrases hardly added extra time to their reading sessions — maybe 90 seconds per book.
The children have been followed for two years and, according to the most recent findings, increasing their contact with print is helping to improve their reading, by addressing their difficulties at an early stage.
As one of the researchers, Shayne Piasta, a professor at Ohio State University, says, children tend to ignore the printed words on the pages of a book when read to and to focus instead on pictures or (if a parent is reading to them) on looking at a parent.
At one level, these findings seems obvious: Children need to make the connection between the words they hear read out loud to them and the words printed on the pages of a book. How can you read a book to a child without pointing such out? But so many children’s books, and certainly books for those learning to read and for young readers, are often amply illustrated with colorful pictures. It is a similar case with many of the software apps designed to teach children to read e-books on devices such as an iPad: Such apps often contain eye-catching graphics not to mention animations, sound effects and the like. The plain old written word has a lot of competition on a page or screen.
My autistic son Charlie is 15 years old; he only seems able to read some single words. I have put some books on his iPad but wondered if all the “bells and whistles” of the apps — the animations to mimic a page turning, the bright colors, the letters seeming to move themselves as a voice reads them — only distract him. It seems to take Charlie a lot of effort just to focus his eyes and mind on groups of letters so the simplest presentation — writing words in black ink on an otherwise plain piece of paper — looks stark, but keeps his attention focused on just the essentials; on the written word.
Currently, the US is 45th in the world in literacy rates, inbetween the UK and Italy and tied with Puerto Rico. The “average” American reads at about a 7th or 8th grade level. Could the plain old unembellished word, and directing children to focus on it — a return to the basics, indeed — make a huge difference in teaching young children to read?
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