Preventing Reading Failure in Kindergarten and First Grade
“Preventing Early Reading Failure: An Argument” by Darrell Morris in The Reading Teacher, April 2015 (Vol. 68, #7, p. 502-509), available for purchase at
In this article in The Reading Teacher, Darrell Morris (Appalachian State University) takes note of the pendulum swings of early-reading approaches over the last 30 years: basal readers, then whole language, then intensive phonics. The outcome? Although all three approaches are logical and teach 75–80 percent of students to read by the end of first grade, 20–25 percent of students aren’t successful, with higher percentages in disadvantaged communities. Why? Because of built-in disadvantages in these methods, says Morris – stilted language, uninteresting stories, and insufficient repetition of high-frequency words. The good news, he believes, is that recent research clearly points to six cardinal principles for preventing reading failure in the early grades:
• Leveled books – Working in guided reading circles, beginning readers should be led efficiently through an interesting, carefully leveled book curriculum. The research breakthrough came in 2004 when Cunningham, Koppenhaver, Erickson, and Spadorcia proposed that beginning readers should be taught with books that include: (a) repetition of high-frequency words like is, were, said, girls, play; (b) adequate repetition of decodable patterns like hat, leg, job, sled, drop; (c) text that leads children to anticipate upcoming words; and (d) interesting story lines. In short order, authors created hundreds of books that combined all four characteristics, with pictures to complement the story lines (Morris believes the Rigby PM collection is the best example). When skillfully taught, books like these help students develop sight vocabulary, reading fluency, and comprehension. Another feature of the new generation of early-reading books is finer gradations of text difficulty – nine or more in first grade alone – making it easier for teachers to match students with their level and for children to move up as their reading improves.
• Phonics – Beginning readers also need to be led through a leveled word study curriculum. Teachers take their students through the developmental continuum of phonics instruction (beginning consonants, short vowels, consonant clusters, one-syllable vowel patterns), deciding where children need to be taught on the continuum, using an effective method for teaching the various letter sounds and spelling patterns. Two phonics approaches are vying for supremacy – analytic and synthetic. Both are systematic, sequential, and aimed toward the same end goal – automatic recognition of basic spelling patterns. Whichever approach is used, says Morris, needs to be supplemented with “copious amounts of contextual reading at the appropriate difficulty level.”
• Teacher training – This is essential to “stir the pot” in the first two areas. Morris suggests a basic lesson plan that combines elements of Reading Recovery and Early Steps:
- Part 1: Reread two or three leveled books.
- Part 2: Teach a phonics/word study lesson.
- Part 3: Introduce a new leveled book, which is reread in the next day’s lesson.
Implementing lessons like this is not a simple matter, and teachers need initial training and expert coaching to execute the technique and pacing in ways that will bring all students to reading success.
• Readaloud - Teachers need to read more-challenging texts every day to stretch students’ reading skills, familiarity with language structures, vocabulary, and general knowledge. “In the long run,” says Morris, “and for many beginning readers, time spent actively listening to challenging stories is as important as time spent reading simple stories in the reading circle.”
• Independent reading – 20-25 minutes should be set aside every day for the whole class to read on their own, with the teacher strolling through the class and focusing especially on struggling readers, listening to them read and providing help where needed.
• Writing – This plays an essential role in learning to read, says Morris. “Children’s earliest writing efforts (e.g., picture captions, single sentences, short notes) help them to understand that sentences are composed of words and that words are composed of sounds that match to letters.” Later, children tell stories, make arguments, and experiment with letter sounds, spelling patterns, and sight words.