Feature: Little Readers

April 29, 2014

Reading ignites your child’s imagination and inspire them learn. Founder of Reading Specialists, Reena Ermitano, answers a few questions on developing your child’s reading skills and nurturing them to be life long readers.

1. Please tell us about Reading Specialists? 
Reading Specialists is a reading center that provides literacy assessments, reading enrichment, and intervention for children from ages five to twelve.  Classes are conducted in the context of individualized instruction, usually two to three times a week for an hour each.  We strengthen phonological awareness skills (i.e. rhyming, blending, segmenting words into individual sounds), which have been found to be critical to word-reading development. We also address difficulties in learning alphabet names and letter sounds, word reading, comprehension, spelling, and written expression.  Some of our students may have Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), dyslexia, receptive and expressive language difficulties, or a language-based learning disability.

2. What is your teaching method?
Children come with a variety of needs so we use an eclectic approach. To address difficulties with handwriting, decoding and spelling, for example, we utilize multisensory methods.  This means that students make use of all modalities while learning.  These include visual, kinesthetic, and auditory pathways to ensure optimal retention of information. We do repeated reading to develop reading fluency, specifically to increase reading speed and accuracy, which also enhances comprehension. For those who have difficulties with remembering and understanding what they read, we teach text structure, mental imaging, and metacognitive strategies.

What makes our program effective is that it is customized to every student’s needs.  We do not utilize prescribed modules or subscribe to a “one size fits all” philosophy.  Furthermore, we employ instructional strategies that are evidence-based and we ensure that teaching is direct, systematic, and explicit. Because while some kids may learn their alphabet or decoding words intuitively, for example, some kids do not. So this is the kind of instruction they need, and respond well to.

3. What is the ideal age for a child to learn to read? 
Reading development definitely follows a progression. But there is also a wide variation in terms of when children learn to read or how quickly they move through the stages of reading. According to one of my professors, this explains why there is a dearth of standardized tests for reading for young children. Aside from individual differences, this would also depend on the quality of instruction and the amount of interaction they receive. In my experience, I have seen children read as early as 3 ½ years-old. Some local schools expect students to be reading at 4-years-old.  Yet the American standardized tests for reading that I administer are mostly for 6-year-olds and above.

Bottom line, it is never too early to set the groundwork for learning to read later on. We all know too well that some even recommend reading from the womb. It is critical to develop children’s vocabulary by immersing them in words and a print-rich environment.  After all, words are the vehicle to conveying meaning. To do that, converse with your children. Read to them. A LOT. Words in books are far more sophisticated and complex compared to words used in daily conversation. Also, make children aware of environmental print, and the functionality of print. What do those road signs mean? What are those things written on their cereal boxes? What does that tarpaulin on the mall say? And to develop pre-reading skills other than print awareness, sensitize their ears to sound by reading to them books rich in rhyme and alliteration, and engaging them in rhyming activities.

What is important is to develop and nurture in children a positive attitude towards books and literacy activities, then provide them with good reading instruction.

4. What are your favorite children’s books?
Dav Pilkey’s Dragon series, Captain Underpants series, Bernard Wiseman’s Morris the Moose books , Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series, and stories about Harry the Dog by Gene Zion. I love all of them for their humor. Add to that the Wayside School series by Louis Sachar.

A personal favorite is The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I think it’s a must-read even for adults.

5. How can a parent encourage and support reading at home? Can you recommend some activities that kids can do to improve their reading skills?
It’s important that parents themselves read. This communicates to children the functionality of reading—whether that be for entertainment or as a source of information—which will also make them want to engage in reading themselves.

Set a regular reading time so children can read aloud daily to, or alternately with a supervising adult.  Older children could engage in sustained silent reading.  Children in the primary grades should at least read for 20 to 30 minutes a day.  Older children could also read stories to their younger siblings.

Choose reading materials that cater to their hobbies or interests. Some parents take issue with having their kids read magazines, comic books, or graphic novels.  But in my opinion, anything to get them started reading is a big step in getting them hooked on it.

Immerse children in award-winning books and high quality literature.  Picture books accorded the Caldecott Medal Award, and chapter books given the Newberry Award are highly-recommended.
Children lose motivation to read when words are either difficult to decode or hard to understand. So ensure children read literature that is appropriate for their instructional reading level.  They should at least be able to identify 9 out of 10 words or 90% of the words they encounter.

Just like reading improves one’s writing, writing also facilitates the reading and comprehension  process. For younger children, engage them in purposeful writing activities such as making labels and grocery lists, and sending thank-you notes or greetings for special occasions. For older ones, they could make a scrapbook of places they’ve visited, vacations they taken, or keep a daily journal so they can practice putting their thoughts into writing.  This journal could also be their personal response log to books they have read or movies they have seen.

If children are not yet reading, the best way to support future reading development is by reading to them. Remember that until they learn how to read, all learning occurs through the ear. By reading aloud, you set the foundation for reading.  Besides communicating to children that reading is a pleasurable activity as you make a ritual of sharing a book, reading aloud develops the vocabulary, prior knowledge, and understanding for complex language structures necessary for them to comprehend once they learn how to read.  Since reading aloud is slow paced compared to video or computer games, it also improves children’s attention span.
Encourage children to play word games that involve developing their language skills such as word hunts, crossword puzzles, and Madlibs. Then of course there are those games mostly by Hasbro Inc. such as Boggle, Upwords, Taboo, Scrabble, Guess Who? and Scattegories that fulfill the same purpose.

7. How do you develop a child to be an independent reader?
Reading is a skill that just gets better with practice.  So the more a child reads, s/he accumulates a bigger sight word vocabulary and is able to recognize words more automatically. Success builds on success. If they read more frequently and extensively, then their sense of efficacy as readers also increases.  This boosts their confidence, which further fuels their desire to read.

8. What are your most memorable experiences while teaching kids?
When a student who was reading several years below grade level and I’d just been working with for a few weeks told me, “You know, I didn’t realize reading could actually be fun.”

Another was when a parent told me her child thought of me as “cool.”  But then again, I think that may have not had anything do with my teaching. Just the fact that he got a fart bomb as a reward for completing his work that day!

9. What do you love most about teaching and reading?
One of the challenges of teaching is that you never really are certain how much of a dent you are making in a child’s learning.  But when parents, for example, confirm that students are admitted to a school, are more confident, and experience greater success since the initiation of intervention—that is most rewarding. It reassures us that what we do is worthwhile. Of course, children make it largely by their own efforts. But to be instrumental in making that happen along and in coordination with parents, caregivers, schools, and other professionals in the field is fulfilling.

As for reading, I love it because it is an essential life skill and a powerful tool.  Children read in order to learn.  Knowledge is power.  So when we help students learn how to read, in a sense, we empower them, too.

Ma. Rona Luisa Ermitano completed her undergraduate studies in AB Psychology from the Ateneo de Manila University.  She obtained her masteral degrees in PreService Elementary Education and Reading Specialist in Teachers College, Columbia University.  She is the founder and Directress of Reading Specialists, which was established in January 2004.

Originally published in the now defunct website, cudsly.com. Complete article can still be accessed at https://web.archive.org/web/20150406121600/http://blog.cudsly.com:80/little-readers/.

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