Reading with children, particularly when they are very young, is critical to their later success in school. Decades ago I was an English teacher. One of my classes was composed of sixteen to twenty-year olds with below third grade reading levels. Research showed that many of these students would not graduate from high school. They were highly likely to leave school in their junior year. But there were some steps that could be taken to prevent this from happening.
In the late 80’s, the district in which I taught funded our high school to use some of those preventative measures with my class of low-level readers. Normally these students would be taken from class for separate reading instruction, but this year the reading teacher would co-teach with me during their scheduled English class. Class size would not exceed eighteen members. They would follow the same curriculum and use the same books as the other eleventh graders in the school, but the amount of literature covered would be less in order to enable us to give greater concentration to skill-building. Vocabulary, grammar, writing, etc. would all be centered around the piece of literature we were studying at the time.
Audio-visual supplements were used in conjunction with classroom assignments. Computers were placed in our classroom at a time when they were relegated to the business department. Most importantly, when a student was absent, a phone call was made by the reading teacher or me to the student’s home. We asked if everything was all right and let the student know he/she was missed and that we expected to see them in class the next day. That year, not one of those students dropped out.
This was the year that I learned how important reading to pre-schoolers was in predicting success or failure later in life. That year a documentary was done on major factors leading to a burgeoning problem of extremely high drop-out rates. Two of the key variables were the mother’s education level and interactive reading starting before kindergarten. I showed the documentary to this class and after some discussion, we decided to embark upon what turned out to be the best lesson plan I’d ever created.
We were studying formal letter-writing at the time, so we decided to send request letters to various businesses asking for a donation of one children’s book. The students wrote the letters; scheduled appointments; and spoke with the business community to explain our plan to use these books to read to elementary school children. In class, my students learned and practiced inter-active reading skills using the books they had acquired and of course, they wrote thank-you notes to the businesses involved.
Once they had gained confidence, we arranged for them to visit an elementary school where they each would be assigned five youngsters. In a large room they broke into groups. With their own students gathered around, the teenagers read the books with them. They interspersed questions about characters, setting and plot; discussed illustrations; incorporated counting; guessed what would happen next and reviewed what had already occurred in the stories. Throughout the lessons, they encouraged the younger ones to use their imaginations. It was extremely noisy in that room and there was much laughter. I remember the laughter.
On our way back to the high school, I overheard one student telling another how good it made him feel to return to a school where he felt he had been unsuccessful. He shared his feeling of pride in knowing that his second grade teacher had seen him surrounded by his own little class. I remember his voice and those words.
The next week the elementary students visited our classroom. They spent time in groups around the computers with the high school students, using their imaginations to dictate stories while the high-schoolers typed. The stories were printed out, covers were designed and then they proceeded to the auditorium. While their “student” teachers read those original works to the audience, the youngsters acted out their stories on stage. Too soon it was time to return to the classroom for milk and cookies. Each youngster chose a donated book to take home with them to read with their families.
The best lesson I ever planned involved research, discussions, interviewing skills, letter-writing and reading aloud. It not only involved acquiring these skills, but also evoked a sense of pride and of self-confidence in students labeled by the education process as “high risk”. Most importantly, it instilled in my class an understanding of the importance of reading with their own younger siblings and of some day reading with their future children to insure that they would have a better chance to succeed in school and in life.