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The parent's role in literacy development.

Fostering Reading Strategies at Home

Over the past several years, parents have been encouraged to actively promote literacy skills with their preschoolers. Once formal reading instruction begins, however, many parents feel inhibited about participating in their child's literacy development. This inhibition may be due to uncertainties about the composition of the reading process and their role in this process. This article will 1) provide information about traditional and current beliefs regarding the reading process, 2) present specific self-monitoring strategies that parents and teachers may use to help students gain meaning from print and 3) describe activities that can be used at home to foster strategic readers.

Traditional and Current Beliefs

Current research has led educators to reevaluate and revise many of the beliefs that were entrenched in traditional reading programs. It is critically important for parents to understand how these revisions have altered teaching philosophies and practices over the past several years. By understanding what researchers have revealed about the reading process, parents may begin to feel more comfortable about providing literacy support at home. Five traditional tenets of reading instruction will be contrasted to current views of the reading process to illustrate recent developments.

* It was believed that learning to read is like learning to drive a car. Reading, as defined by this type of philosophy, is acquired by systematically mastering an ordered sequence of skills. According to Rudolf Flesch, author of Why Johnny Can't Read (cited in Frager, 1985), a child must first master the mechanical skills of reading in a strict sequence prior to learning to read. The majority of reading programs used in the United States have been based on this approach to reading.

Many parents express discomfort about helping beginning readers at home because they are uncertain of the "correct sequence" of skills. Many apprehensive parents fear they will confuse the child if their reinforcement at home does not coincide with the skills being taught in school. Ironically, however, publishers of these reading programs disagree about the hierarchical sequence of skills. Their inability to concur on the most effective sequence points to the arbitrary nature of this sequencing (May, 1990).

The teaching of isolated skills and the fractioning of written language divert the reader's attention away from the major objective of every reading program: to derive meaning from a passage. It is, therefore, more effective to focus on the use of strategies and cueing systems than to be overly concerned about the "correct" sequence of skills when working with beginning readers.

* It was believed that learning to read is easier when the reader is presented with material containing words easy to sound out. The stories in many beginning textbooks are written with a specific teaching purpose or skill in mind. The vocabulary and sentence structures of these stories are controlled by the publishers so that the stories can provide practice for specific skills.

Goodman (1986) explains that "in our zeal to make it |written language~ easy, we've made it hard. How? Primarily by breaking whole (natural) language up into bite-size, but abstract little pieces". As a result of breaking language into decodable letters, syllables and individual words, the meaning of the message is often lost or difficult to discern. Often, by controlling the vocabulary to make reading easier, the word choice and sentence structure become so unnatural that the text is actually more difficult to understand.

* It was believed that children should not rely on picture cues while reading. Many concerned adults worry when beginning readers rely heavily on picture cues. Gaining information from pictures can be, however, an effective strategy for young readers. Pictures help a reader 1) connect the ideas in the text with past experiences and knowledge, 2) confirm the message being constructed from the print and 3) acquire new information to enhance comprehension. It is natural for children to move from picture-governed strategies to print-governed strategies as they become mature readers. As Holdaway (1979) explains, "Gradually, the pictures on the page should be replaced by the 'picture in your head'; i.e., personal imagery constructed as the story unfolds".

* It was believed that children would develop poor reading habits if they pointed to words as they read. It is now believed that pointing is an effective strategy for young readers to use (Holdaway, 1979). When teachers and parents model (by pointing to each word while reading with children), the child begins to understand that the printed symbols represent spoken words. This modeling also demonstrates that print moves systematically from the upper left-hand corner of the page to the bottom right-hand corner. Children should be encouraged to imitate these same procedures. Once children become aware of the conventions of print and develop self-confidence as readers, their reliance on pointing diminishes.

* It was believed that reading and writing are two distinct subjects. Reading instruction generally precedes writing instruction. Our past teaching decisions were influenced by language skill development models that traditionally viewed reading and writing as part of a hierarchy. In this view, experience is the basis for all language development. Building upon experiences, children acquire listening skills, speaking skills, reading skills, writing skills and, finally, language refinement. Each level in this hierarchy, it was believed, needed to be clearly understood before a child could successfully proceed to the next level (Stock & Wixson, 1983).

With this view of reading, it is easy to understand why reading and writing were viewed as separate subjects, with reading preceding writing instruction. The major aim of both reading and writing, however, is the construction of meaning through written language. Therefore, it becomes evident that these two processes are reciprocal. When reading, the reader constructs a message from the author and when writing, the author constructs a message for others to read. Practice in one of these areas strengthens skills in the other area.

Children should be encouraged to write stories, messages, lists, etc. These types of meaningful activities reinforce many concepts that are essential for successful reading (e.g., the relationships between letters and sounds, the understanding that print conveys meaning, the development of the concept of a "word").

In summary, children appear to benefit from reading books that are predictable and meaningful. These books should contain vocabulary that imitates the child's oral speech patterns. Children should be encouraged to use strategies, such as pointing and picture cues, that help them gain meaning from print. Writing is an important contributor to literacy development. As the following section illustrates, successful readers tend to derive information from several sources as they read. Strategic readers develop a balance among all of these sources.

Developing Strategic Readers

When a child comes to an unfamiliar word, it's often tempting to suggest, "Sound it out." When this suggestion is used as the primary strategy for a beginning reader, however, the child may perceive reading as word pronunciation rather than a way to communicate meaning.

By teaching children how to rely on a variety of strategies, we help to promote independent readers who are capable of monitoring their own comprehension. Independent readers learn how to develop these strategies by using cueing systems. The following cueing systems interact simultaneously, allowing the reader to use knowledge of the language to determine the author's message:

* Visual cues provide information about the relationship between letters and the sounds they represent.

* Semantic cues are features of our language that provide meaning for words.

* Syntax cues are features of our language that allow us to know the correct word order and grammatical structure of sentences.

* Recognition of information gleaned through prior knowledge and experiences should be used to enhance comprehension.

Children should be encouraged to think about what strategies they use while they are reading. Poor readers tend to focus too heavily on visual cues (sounding out). Reliance on visual cues forces the child to stop reading and focus attention on the part of the sentence that is unknown. When time is spent focusing on the unknown, comprehension suffers. When a child allows the cueing systems to interact, however, attention is focused on the parts of the text that are known and this information is then used to derive meaning.

Although it is tempting to intervene and supply the child with the correct response, this action forces the reader to remain dependent on you (or other helpers). Conversely, independent readers have learned how to apply self-monitoring and self-correcting strategies to solve problems while reading. Parents and teachers can model questions that foster strategic reading and lead children to think about the types of strategies they use in the reading process. The following actiivities may also be used to reinforce the cueing systems:

* Read patterned books. Books that have a repeating sentence, verse or pattern are ideal for beginning readers. Repetition provides a scaffolding (Bruner, 1973) upon which the reader can rely. The child is then free to focus attention on integrating the three cueing systems for the limited parts of the text that are unfamiliar. It is appropriate to begin a new book by looking at the pictures while you and your child discuss what is likely to take place in the story. Next, as you read the book to the child, point to each word. If the book is easy enough, the child may attempt to read or imitate your reading of the book. Once this happens, the child generally loves to reread these familiar stories. This activity should be strongly encouraged, for it helps the child build confidence, strengthen phonetic skills, increase sight vocabulary, develop fluency and integrate the cueing systems.

* Engage in reading/writing of sentences. Beginning readers may dictate a sentence while you print the words on a strip of paper (using lower-case letters unless capital letters are required). Draw attention to letters and individual words as you print. This activity helps children recognize the directional aspects of print (that print moves from left to right and words are separated by spaces). As children become acquainted with letters and sounds, they should be encouraged to write as much of the sentence as possible while you provide guidance. You may read the completed sentence back to your child, who in turn reads the sentence to you. The sentence may be cut up so that each word appears as an individual "flashcard." The child may be asked to put the individual words together again to form the original sentence. The thinking involved in this process focuses attention on visual cues (by having the child make sure the letters represent the appropriate sounds), semantic cues (by having the child make sure the sentence makes sense) and syntax cues (by having the child make sure the sentence sounds right).

Since reading is a developmental task, the more children read, the more efficient they become at this task. Children who are just beginning to read need a great deal of encouragement and support from those around them. Parents should feel comfortable in their attempts to foster 1st-grade reading skills at home and be able to confidently participate in this exciting stage of their child's development.

Mary C. McMackin is a doctoral student and Research Assistant, College of Education, University of Massachusetts/Lowell, Lowell, MA.


Bruner, J. (1973). Organization of early skilled action. Child Development, 44, 1-11.

Frager, A. M. (1985). Three faces of reading. The Clearing House, 59, 158-161.

Goodman, K. (1986). What's whole in whole language? Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Holdaway, D. (1979). The foundations of literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

May, F. (1990). Reading as communication: An interactive approach (2nd ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill Publishing Co.

Stock, P. L., & Wixson, K. K. (1983). Reading and writing together. In P. L. Stock (Ed.), Fforum (pp. 201-219). Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Children can be encouraged to use cues by asking the following questions:

Visual cues

1) Does this word look like...(say the word the child read)?

2) How do you know this is the word...and not the word...?

3) What sound would you expect to hear at the beginning (or end) of this word (point to a word)?

4) Do you think this will be a long word or a short word?

Semantic cues

1) Does this sentence make sense?

2) What other word could we use to mean the same thing?

Syntax cues

1) Does this sentence sound right to you?

2) If you were talking to a friend, would you talk this way?

Prior knowledge and experience

1) What would you say in this situation?

2) Does the picture help you think of anything familiar?
COPYRIGHT 1993 Association for Childhood Education International
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Author:McMackin, Mary C.
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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