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Written by one of our educational consultants, Michaela David.

The other day, I was trying to remember how I first learned to read.

The subject at first took me back to my earliest memories of reading at school. I remember sitting in a semi circle around the teacher with my fellow classmates. We each took a turn reading a section out of an old fashioned basal reader (the Dick and Jane type). It was the mid 60’s, so that was to be expected.

I was busy calculating which section I was going to have to read when my turn came up, and instead of following the storyline as my classmates read, I was busy rehearsing and practicing the passage I would have to read aloud.

The thought of making a mistake or reading too slow mortified me. When I finished reading, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was over as far as I was concerned. Who cared what happened next in the story?  It seemed my classmates also approached it the same way. No one seemed to enjoy this daily ritual in school.

So how did I become such an avid reader?

As far back as I can remember there were always books in my home.  I enjoyed looking at books and leafing through them, even if I couldn’t read them.  My dad was also always reading a book, and he didn’t keep it to himself. He’d talk about what he just read to me. Even though I hadn’t read the same books he read, I felt like I had. And of course my childhood was filled with frequent trips to the library. I learned to love libraries and could stay in them for hours.

As I grew older, the way my school handled reading changed. When I was 10 years old, our regular teacher was assigned a student teacher to partner with. He did something no other teacher had ever done before- he read aloud to us everyday from a long chapter book. To this day, I can still see the pictures in my mind from when he read “21 Balloons” to us, even though the only picture I saw was on the cover. By taking the pressure to perform off of us, he gave us the freedom to become immersed in the story.

Many years later I became an elementary school teacher, and found myself teaching reading to young children. I’m sorry to say that I started out doing what I described as my earliest memories of reading in school. It was the late 80’s, though, and new techniques in reading instruction were being developed. I absorbed myself in this research, and learned about what other countries were doing with their students.

From my reading, I took away two simple things that I could start doing right away. The first was that children tended to have a taste for high quality literature- not the dry basal readers like Dick and Jane. Children’s literature could include fascinating stories, silly or serious poems, rhymes, jingles, and even songs. Using more interesting literature helped the kids be more motivated to learn to read on their own.

Secondly, reading aloud books that were above a child’s reading level increased their comprehension and vocabulary- especially when accompanied by discussions about the book.

I had to change nearly everything about the way I had been teaching reading, but the results were well worth it. I saw kids who hated reading time (and were in the lowest reading percentiles) become avid readers in the top percentiles. Reading became fun for everyone- as it should be.

Many years later I had a child of my own, and pondered how to handle reading as a parent rather than as a teacher. I had to seriously take into account my daughter’s personality and what was going to work. I laid the foundation by reading a lot of stories everyday, but gave her no formal reading instruction.

I must admit I was a little worried when she started kindergarten, where I heard parents bragging about how their kids were already reading chapter books by themselves. It was hard to continue my no-pressure methods, but I didn’t give in to the fear. I knew she would become a great reader when she was ready. But I did do one thing I hadn’t done thus far, I introduced reading aloud from chapter books that were a few years above her reading level.

She didn’t take to it right away, as there were no pictures to focus on and the stories required patience due to their length. I persevered though; it became a daily habit and part of a bedtime ritual that lasted about 20 to 30 minutes every evening. I didn’t see any actual results immediately. But they came later. By third grade they told me she was reading at college level.

Today the story is very different, with high stakes standardized testing that puts tremendous pressure on teachers and parents to produce immediate results. Not long ago, I was working as a consultant at an elementary school, where a kindergarten teacher informed me that there was no time to read stories to the kids anymore. Everything was centered around test preparation.

What’s happening in education now is the polar opposite of how it used to be. I hardly ever had homework when I was in elementary school. I wrote my first real paper in AP English when I was in 12th grade. Having rather “undeveloped” skills compared to modern students didn’t stop me from getting good grades, or from double majoring in philosophy and biology at a top notch university. When I was looking at different private schools a number of years ago, one school was boasting about teaching their 3rd graders how to write research papers. When does this insanity end?

One parent I recently worked with had her child in a high-pressure elite school, with stressful tutoring and test preparation daily after school. She confided to me that “I feel in my heart that what I’m doing to my son is wrong, but what choice do I have?

There are choices, though, and there are other ways to do things with better results. Putting so much pressure on kids at such a young age is wrong. It has also led to an epidemic of anxiety disorders and depression among children. It’s also completely unnecessary.

Children can learn how to read, write, and do math in fun ways that feel effortless- such as the methods we use with our students, and show in this blog. One mom recently told us that this past year was the first year her daughter hadn’t thrown up during her state tests- thanks to the gentle preparation and confidence building exercises we had worked on.  

Parents can do something. It’s true that performance on tests will affect your children’s future, but you don’t have to put that stress on them. Make home into a haven from the stress of the outside world. Read aloud to your kids everyday. Teach them the necessary school skills in everyday life, not by cramming them right before a test. Have somebody patient help them with their homework, projects, and test prep, as much as is necessary. If they aren’t ready to do the work on their own, do it with them. Be patient with them, they will not disappoint you.