CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It has been written in newspapers and is a topic of educational conversations: "Children need to learn to read by Third Grade." When I hear this I want to say, "That is too late!"
I have taught preschool through third grade for many years. By midyear in third grade, I expect every child in my class to be reading chapter books and writing essays of at least three paragraphs.
Learning to read and read well needs to happen in first grade. First grade is a window for learning to read. At no other grade level is phonics, learning to sound and blend letters to form words, taught as explicitly. As a first-grade teacher, I always told kindergarten teachers it did not matter if children did not know letters or sounds. They are ready to come to first grade if they can cooperate, get along well with peers and sit still for short periods to learn. Some children do learn to read by kindergarten, but for most children, first grade is that perfect developmental age.
To help all children learn to read by first grade, I suggest:
* First grade classes should be limited to 15 to 18 children with a teacher and an aide. A small class means the teacher and aide can give children more individual attention and instruction. I would like to see all primary classes limited to 18 students with a teacher and an aide, but it is most important in first grade. Please don't add more children to a classroom with another teacher. It is too many people in a small space. This also changes the dynamics of the classroom community.
* Vocabulary should be taught in the classroom. When we expand children's vocabulary, we extend their knowledge. Word walls are wonderful. Along with words from the reading program, include vocabulary words from science experiments, math lessons and their own writing. Post children's writing, poems and information all around the room. A classroom should drip with print.
* Phonics should be taught within real literature. Children learn best when they can make connections to what they know. Phonics is a very important part of learning to read. When children are taught to read using only phonics they can become word callers or empty readers, having no comprehension of what they read. When phonics is taught in the context of real literature, children make connections and learn to read with understanding. Children love real books, especially non- fiction books.