By Peg Tyre
From the time they are in kindergarten through third grade, all children need to be making weekly progress toward mastering what we now know is the complicated process of squeezing meaning from text.
In the early years, children should be learning high-frequency words like at, and, the, then, what, and when. By the end of kindergarten and into first grade your child's teacher should be providing explicit phonics lessons — consonants, consonant blends, short vowels, long vowels that are followed and controlled by the silent but powerful e.
If your child is being taught high-frequency words but not decoding, you need to ask a few more questions. By second grade, kids should not be trying to recognize new words or using picture clues to figure out words. They should be breaking words down into sound chunks and getting quicker and more sophisticated as the weeks go by.
Check in with your child's teacher frequently to make sure she is moving forward. You don't want to hear vague assurances such as "your child is doing well" or "your child is poorly behaved," or that she raises her hand before speaking (or not), or knows how to use glue. Your child's teacher should be able to describe to you in some detail your child's incremental movement forward or the specific area where she is falling short.
When your first-grade child isn't making progress in reading or seems to have reached a plateau, you need to move quickly. Ask for a meeting with his or her teacher, and if that's not effective, ask for a meeting with the reading specialist at the school.
Your first question for the reading specialist should be asked privately. Ask her to describe his or her training. In some schools, the job of reading specialist is given to a teacher with a high level of training in teaching kids to read. Sometimes she is a teacher who year after year was able to get and keep all her students at grade level. Often, though, the job of reading specialist is given to a longtime teacher as a reward. If you are meeting with a reading specialist who is the latter rather than the former, downscale your expectations for the meeting.
Once the teacher and specialist and maybe the principal have assembled, you're looking for a plan of action, You don't want to hear anyone say, "She's just not ready," or "He'll catch up," or "We need to wait another year until he is farther behind in order to get help," If you hear "Maybe we need to hold him back until he is ready to read," you'll need to ask even more questions. There are some reasons for holding kids back that may make sense (although the research here is not clear). But for most struggling readers, learning to read is not a question of maturity.
The real question is: "What about next year's instruction will be different from this year's instruction?" Giving your child the same ineffectual method of reading instruction for another year is not going to help. You want to leave that meeting with a thoughtful, targeted plan of attack, one that starts tomorrow. If you don't get it, you may need to find the resources to bring in a specially trained tutor.