My husband is a high school English teacher, and much of the literacy material that he encounters addresses students who are struggling with reading. (I know this because he shares his books with me and we get to discuss them, which is fun for me. Really.) There is less written about supporting students who are advanced readers, and that’s understandable. If they’re already reading, then presumably our job as educators is done, and our students can take it from here.
But what if they’re capable readers at a young age? Is our job really done?
This is what Hubby and I have been trying to figure out lately. We have two young (5- and 6-year old) girls who are advanced readers. One is exceptionally advanced, reading books that are a half-dozen grades ahead of her own. Despite this demonstrated capability, we don’t feel that we’re done teaching them anything about reading.
We do, however, believe that our Kindergarten through Grade 2 reading program is going to look different than it might otherwise.
Our Reading Program
First of all, phonics instruction for reading is done. (Just try teaching phonics for reading to a child who has read books like The Princess and the Goblin. It is Not At All Fun.) Instead, we’re teaching phonics for spelling. They still need phonics instruction, but for different purposes: to spell words; and to learn the pronunciation of the vocabulary they’re absorbing through reading.
Second, we are exposing them to as many rich stories as we possibly can. Yes — that includes the “hard” ones like Shakespeare’s plays. Bruce Pirie, writing about high school English, discusses how good readers make connections: text-to-self, text-to-world, and text-to-text. It’s the latter group of connections that we can foster through reading widely. Essentially, the more stories a student has absorbed, the more text-to-text connections they can make. The more they read, the more they can read, understand, and enjoy.
Here’s an example: Hubby, who loves all things Shakespeare, decided last year that our girls were ready for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So they read it, watched it, and memorized speeches from it. Our girls saw it as “special time with Daddy.” (I think they got to eat chips while watching the movies, which turns anything into a party as far as they’re concerned.) They now rank A Midsummer Night’s Dream as one of their favourite movies and watch one version of it at least every two weeks.
But there’s more. While we were reading together Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon, we came to a scene where the Dragon was putting on an impromptu play. We were about five words into the speech that he was delivering when Tasha squealed, “Oh, Mommy — he’s pretending to be Titania!” and fell off of the chair laughing at the image. (She also quoted the rest of the speech, which I’ll admit unnerved me.)
That’s the kind of text-to-text connection that teachers long for students to make. It’s part of what makes for a meaningful reading experience. It lets us in on the author’s jokes. And I’m seeing it happen more and more for our girls as we simply keep reading good stories with them.
Shakespeare isn’t the only source of rich stories, but he’s one that gets overlooked in elementary years. I’d add the Bible, Greek and Roman mythology, and fairy tales as other stories that children can enjoy and learn from.
Third, formal literary analysis is going to wait for a bit. They are reading books that children in Gr. 7 might, but that doesn’t mean that they have to analyze the books in the same way. We check comprehension by talking about a book that has been read. We talk about word choice and images and connections as we encounter them in read-alouds. We look up words. In short, we model good reading habits, but we don’t analyze to the point of sucking the delight out of a book.
Finding Good Books for Independent Reading
We assign books for our daughters to read, and ask them to spend about 30 minutes a day reading these. The rest of their reading for the day can be anything they choose. Sometimes for free reading they pick up their assigned book, but more often than not one of them will have her nose in Calvin and Hobbes or Asterix. That’s great.
There is a challenge with young advanced readers in that books written at their reading level can have content that is too mature for their age. For example, Tasha may be linguistically ready to read Harry Potter independently, but the adventures would loom too large for her and she wouldn’t sleep for a year.
We’ve therefore turned to a lot of classical children’s literature and have assembled lists of books for them to read independently. (We have a list for Kindergarten, Grade 1, and plans for Grade 2.) They can choose any book from this list to read during independent reading time, and once they’ve finished about a dozen from their list, they get to pick out a book of their own for us to buy.
While we do allow them to pick up anything to read during their free reading time, we’ve learned that there are some books that need to be kept to a minimum. We call them junk books; I believe Charlotte Mason called them “twaddle.” Last year, Tasha discovered an easy reader, formulaic series about fairies. She enjoyed the books and started checking them out by the armful. Each would be read in about 20 minutes. We were fine with this because she was, after all, reading. But then I started to notice that she couldn’t really tell us anything different about each story (because they are all. exactly. the same). I also noticed that she was having a hard time sticking with any book longer than 30 minutes. Even her old Beverly Cleary favourites were “too long” and were dropped after one or two chapters. Our best guess was that the steady stream of inane stories and low vocabulary were actually diminishing her ability to work at reading.
So we didn’t exactly ban the Rainbow Magic books from our house, but we did set a limit of only one from the library at a time. We also started asking her to read books that we knew would stretch her in some way, and before long her enjoyment of reading had returned.
Supporting Advanced Readers
Read lots of good books. That’s our master plan for supporting our little bookworms, and so far it has been effective in engendering a delight in reading and a surprisingly deep understanding of new books. Next year we are also going to add in some elements of Michael Clay Thompson’s Language Arts, a program designed for advanced readers. Thompson eloquently expresses the same philosophy of literature education that we hold:
Our purpose is to immerse children in great books so that they experience literature as literature and not as a drudgery of tedious school activities. If the child does not love reading, we have failed.
It is by loving to read that children become literate.