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Opinion: Why the science of reading is right for my young learner

Chad Aldeman | July 17, 2023

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I’m writing this for all the parents out there: Don’t leave your child’s reading success to chance.

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I was one of those parents. Sure, my wife and I read to our son every night, and we had plenty of books, newspapers and magazines around the house.

Our local public school spent a lot of time on literacy too, but I cringe now as I look back on how they did it. They taught kids to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words using pictures, the first letter or other context clues.

I now know these are called three-cueing strategies, and they are hallmarks of bad reading instruction.

Still, it was only during home school in the wake of the COVID-19 shutdowns that we noticed that our son couldn’t sound out words. He had never been taught. Like millions of kids, he lacked the secret reading “code” that lets beginners understand how letters correspond with sounds and how those sounds blend into words.

We were able to get our son back on track using old-school phonics workbooks, asking him to read to us at night, and giving him practice with reading comprehension tasks.

After working with our son and reading everything I could get my hands on to learn about the science of reading, I came up with an idea for a program to help other parents catch problems early and support their children’s early reading habits.

I called it Read Not Guess. I started with a summer pilot program last year. Parents received simple phonics lessons by email showing them how to work with their children on sounding out letters, blending sounds into words and building words into sentences. The program had over 1,100 subscribers, and I got enough positive feedback to convince me it was worth continuing.

So this year, parents and other caregivers who sign up will be able to select the program that best fits their needs. I’m offering three levels: a beginner program (covering the basic letter sounds), an interim program that goes beyond the basics (e.g. digraph sounds like th, sh and ch) and a third level that addresses common vowel combinations that are confusing for young readers (such as ea and oi).

All three levels are free and open to all. They’re structured as summer challenges and will run for five weeks starting Monday, July 17. The lessons are short and meant to take only 5 to 10 minutes. Participants who finish the challenge will earn a (digital) certificate of completion.

For parents who want to do more, the free Teach Your Monster online games are a great place to start. Our family has enjoyed the Stories Podcast on long road trips; it’s fun and helps kids build their vocabulary. For younger kids (ages 3 to 5), the free Play Roly activities help kids build their skills in recognizing, hearing and speaking letter sounds. For older kids (entering first through eighth grade) who need more practice with reading comprehension, ReadWorks has free summer printable packets.

Many states and school districts across the country — including ours! — are reconsidering the way they teach kids to read. They’re adopting new curriculum, training teachers, and investing in screening tools and tutors. Speaking as an education policy researcher, it’s great to see the spread of these best practices.

But as a parent who’s been burned already, I’m reserving a healthy dose of skepticism. I’d encourage other parents to do the same.

For anyone who needs more convincing, I strongly recommend listening to Emily Hanford’s “Sold a Story” podcast. It’s a striking example of how policy can get watered down over time and research ignored.

Rather than passively waiting on the sidelines, ask your child’s school if they’re teaching kids how to sound out words. You can sign up for Read Not Guess to give your kids a head start on the next year, or find decodable books — which focus on specific phonics sounds or spelling — to help them practice. Then, check your child’s progress using the short “Readiness Check” from Learning Heroes or, for a more detailed assessment, give them a full grade-level phonemic awareness check-up.

Reading is freedom. It opens up the world. But parents have to make sure their kids are given the keys to the reading code.

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