By Susan Hall, Ed.D.
Determining the instructional approach a teacher or school district is using is critical to helping a child struggling with reading. Research confirms many children who get off to a slow start in reading simply need a different approach to teaching reading. One of the best ways to help a child who is struggling is to try an alternative approach - usually one more explicit and systematic - before deciding to test for a possible learning disability. Parents need to be informed about how reading is taught and then, if not effective, encourage the school to try a different method.
How can parents find out the instructional approach their child's teacher is using? Parents can gain information by attending open house or Back-to-School night typically held a few weeks after school starts. Teachers give an overview of their instructional program, and parents are encouraged to ask questions at these meetings. Another source of information is the teacher's weekly newsletter which often includes mention of sounds taught that week, the words children have been reading and writing to practice those sounds, and activities to do at home to reinforce skills.
Many school districts use a reading curriculum developed by educational publishing companies - often called a "basal" reading series. Typically this curriculum contains a teacher's guide outlining lesson plans for a language arts curriculum and a whole host of student materials, including classroom copies of books for children to read, individual workbooks, letter cards, and other assorted materials. Find out which reading series is being used and whether it is considered research-based.
Although this is a starting point, it won't reveal everything that needs to be known. Even if a parent discovers the curriculum follows best practices, the teacher's skill in delivering the program is at least as important as the materials themselves. Often, experienced teachers supplement a reading series, when it is weak in a particular instructional component, with additional materials.
Many districts do not adopt a published reading series and opt instead to purchase other materials or encourage teachers to design and develop their own curriculum. However, the teacher must be experienced and well-informed to be able to design a complete and balanced curriculum that teaches skills in a systematic and sequential way.
Because teaching reading is a complex process, the best way to assure high quality reading instruction is to have experienced teachers who are knowledgeable about the components of reading identified through scientific research. These informed teachers also must be skilled at identifying whether a particular approach is effective for each child in the class and then know how to intervene when a child is not progressing.
Parents can learn a lot simply by looking around the classroom. In first grade, there most likely will be letter cards with a picture of an object that starts with the same sound as the letter. There might be charts with words organized according to their sounds or lists of common words children find in easily decodable readers. If you visit the classroom during language arts time, look for lessons involving systematic phonics instruction: the teacher may be at the board writing words and asking the children to sound them out or dictating words that follow common spelling patterns and having the children write them down. Children should be given plenty of time to practice skills by reading stories with words they can decipher using sounds already taught. Associations between letters and sounds also are reinforced through diverse writing activities.
Figure out how your child is being instructed by carefully observing the strategies she uses when reading aloud to you. When children who are taught with systematic and explicit phonics come to a word they don't recognize automatically, they begin to sound it out from left to right. If your child consistently looks at the pictures, guesses from context clues, or skips a word to read to the end of a sentence, find out if these strategies are encouraged over sounding out words. Samples of your child's writing and spelling also help you monitor progress with phonics.
Parents can learn a great deal from the first grade teacher by asking some specific questions: