Forming Words: How Librarians Help Students Learn How to Read

My five-year-old son loves books. As a school librarian, I would be upset if he didn’t. But he may well grow into an adult who doesn’t love to read. It would sadden me if this were to happen, but let’s face it: most people in this world are not readers for a variety of reasons. As educators we promote great titles, model good reading habits, and design learning activities and projects that center on inquiry to develop lifelong readers. But what if our students don’t know how to read or have trouble doing it? Too often, we think learning to read is the responsibility of classroom teachers, while we librarians teach students to love to read. Well, we can promote all the titles and book lists we want, but if a student can’t read, it won’t matter.

There are lots of online resources out there to help students with phonics and sight word practice, especially since phonics is not typically taught beyond the elementary level. But the problem with skills done in isolation is they don’t always connect students to the learning objectives we want them to meet – in this case, to read.

For example, my son knows all his letters and sounds. But when you put two or more letters together to sound out to make a word, he doesn’t seem to process it. He thinks of letters as individual units because that’s how he’s used to approaching them. My son experiences reading as a process done for him (i.e. mommy or daddy or grandma reading a book aloud). He loves to watch or listen to books online, but again, the book is read to him. He doesn’t read himself. And for some kids, the transition to reading as a process they do themselves can be frustrating. Our ENL (English as a New Language) students experience similar feelings. They might be new to reading or new to reading a different language. But the challenges are the same: taking ownership of a process that is difficult and time-consuming. Who wants to go through the laborious task of sounding out each word when someone else can read the book to you in-person or online? And that’s in addition to knowing vocabulary, developing fluency, and comprehension.

But if our students don’t learn to read now, they never will.

Audio Books

Audio, and now digital audio books, are touted as great tools to help struggling readers. They help students to access books, but I think one of their strongest uses is to model reading words out loud. Encourage students to practice sounding out words by themselves or reading to someone else (a sibling, friend, parent, us) and compare their reading with what they hear from the audio book. Students could even record their reading to check for pronunciation, pacing, and expression. Digital audio books are not “seen” by other students, so older students reading books for a younger audience don’t have to feel embarrassed. For print books, high-low titles with mature themes and large print are also invaluable additions to support struggling readers.

Audio Proficiency

As a school librarian and parent I’ve instilled the delight of stories with my son, but not the love of learning how to read. He does have a strong auditory memory and can recite whole books out loud. I pare his recitation with my finger by pointing at each word as he says them. I am hoping this builds his sight word knowledge, which is another skill you can model with struggling readers. But, at the end of the day they have to learn to decode words (much like they have to do with media. See my post from December). I plan to have my son “read” to one of his stuffed animal friends by sounding out simple books he doesn’t know. I think once he understands reading is something he can do on his own and is good at, he will read.

I will miss reading books with him as the years go by, but letting go is an essential part of the learning process for teacher/student and parent/child!


Author: Leanne Ellis

I am a School Library Coordinator for the New York City Department of Education’s Department of Library Services. I plan and deliver workshops, provide on-site instructional and program support to school librarians, coordinate programs, administer grants, and am program coordinator for MyLibraryNYC, a program administered with our three public library systems.

Categories: Literacy

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