Scott Smith

Scott Smith

Have you seen the preschooler or kindergartner who reads without a problem?

Over the years I have seen many of these great little readers head off to school appearing as readers. Quite often they are very smart and are very aware of their surroundings. But are they really readers? How’s their spelling? More often than not they are fooling the adults.

What has happened is that they are smart, there is no question. And what they have been able to do at their age is memorize enough words that, within their level of books, they had no difficulty reading. Parents get frustrated when their teachers are teaching the letter sounds and blending because they feel their child is already a reader. Without the understanding of how the words are made, once they hit more difficult reading materials with increasingly higher vocabulary levels, they may begin to struggle.

With most children, they are able to memorize roughly 70 to 80 words and be able to understand how they are used. By the middle of second grade, we often see students begin to struggle. This is because they are unable to decode unknown words or multisyllabic words. Now, they have to step back and learn the skills their kindergarten and first-grade teachers were presenting, which may cause them to slow down.

By no means am I saying to stop encouraging your preschooler from reading, but make sure they also know the letter names and sounds. By building those passageways in your child’s brain they will be able to transfer them later in their decoding of words with strong foundational skills they will be applying as their reading increases.

Increasing reading comprehension

Reading comprehension is a transfer skill that happens after the development of language comprehension. It is the ability to remember things and explain things through retelling. This process begins building pathways in the brain early in life.

Understanding what we read is so important in our culture, but comprehending starts long before we learn to read. Growing up in the 1960s in a very traditional home, it was common to have dinner together. I can remember my parents asking about our day along with them sharing about theirs. Without really realizing it, they were teaching my sister and me how to use our memories to recall and retell information we had gained during the day.

Such an easy thing to do — having your child tell you about something they did during the day — can have an immense impact on your child’s ability to build an understanding of what they read later. If a child cannot tell about events in their lives there is a strong probability they will struggle with reading comprehension later.

Take the time to have your children tell about activities and events during their day. If they are like many kids they will begin by saying, “Oh, nothing,” or “I don’t know.” That is a cue they may be struggling with the skill and you will need to give them some guided assistance. Stay calm, and use questions: “Well, didn’t you have lunch?” Help them trigger memories so they can talk about the day. They will build the brain pathways and soon they will be able to tell you all about their day.

Today’s kids have access to so many devices, so use them. Give them your phone and send them out to make a video about an object, flower, animal, or the beach. Have them watch it and try not to give feedback other than things like, “What a great job.” They will see faults and take the initiative to make changes. Even if they do something different they will build their skills. You can have them give you feedback about their video. Ask “What did you like?” or “What bothered you about your video?”

Along that same line, have them retell a story in selfie-style. Preschoolers love to retell stories you read to them; just have them record/video it. You will be building stronger pathways in their brain, so they will be able to apply them later when they start reading.

Asking students simple questions about their day or having them tell you about a family event will quickly give you an idea of their language comprehension. Until their language comprehension is strong, they will struggle with reading comprehension.


Dr. Scott Smith taught at Umatilla at McNary Heights Elementary School and for Eastern Oregon University in their teacher education program at BMCC. He serves on the Decoding Dyslexia — OR board.

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