Or, how and why to use Reading Bear in preschools.

First, let me say what I am not arguing for here. I am not arguing that preschoolers should be required to learn to read, that preschools should attempt to teach reading, or that they should tell parents that their children will try to learn how to read.  You might want to use Reading Bear for pre-literacy activities with no intention of teaching preschoolers how to read.

I also do not want to defend baby reading.  That’s another subject, which I cover in this long essay.

Finally, I refuse to be saddled with a defense of “academic preschool.”  Reading Bear is painless and not very demanding, even for preschoolers, and so far, all the preschoolers I’ve heard of using it have liked it (some, enthusiastically).  But admittedly, it is “academic,” in the sense that it teaches literacy skills.  Still, I don’t support the idea of intensely academic preschools.  I support early education, but on a limited schedule.  I agree that little ones should spend the vast bulk of their time playing.

In the following, you can assume that I advocate that preschoolers be exposed only to the “Sound It Out Slowly” presentation type.  I have more ideas for using Reading Bear in a preschool classroom further down.

Why use Reading Bear in preschool classrooms?

So here’s my case for using Reading Bear in preschool classrooms.  The first arguments are about pre-literacy skills that are, on anyone’s view, perfectly age-appropriate to teach to preschoolers.  Note that these are features that few other reading programs have in combination.

1. English text is highlighted left to right. First, Reading Bear highlights the text, at the phoneme and blend level (not at the word level), as words and sentences are read.  Seeing the colored text and underlining moving left to right, over and over, will train students to recognize that text is always read left to right.

2. Sentence highlighting teaches that words and whole sentences are made up of individual sounds. A feature that is virtually unique to Reading Bear is that individual sounds and blends are highlighted whenever they are read aloud, according to the phonetic rules Reading Bear introduces, even in sentences.  This helps students to see that words and even whole sentences can ultimately be understood as made up of individual sounds.  Of course, students won’t learn to read those sentences (at least, not right away), but they should gain the crucial pre-literacy insight that words and sentences are made up of discrete sounds that are blended together.

3. Reinforces letter sounds. All 44 of the sounds of the English language are reinforced by Reading Bear.  When words are sounded out and blended (in four different ways), the children are quickly and naturally exposed to literally thousands of examples of individual letter sounds, in context.  Now, we do maintain that children should have learned their basic letter sounds (this video collection might help) before attempting to sound out and decode the words in Reading Bear themselves.  But for preschoolers, Reading Bear can be used to train them to recognize letter sounds in the first place, if they stick with the “Sound It Out Slowly” presentation type.

4. Models correct pronunciation. Reading Bear has two features that make it ideal for improving pronunciation.  First, sounds are broken down and formed clearly and repeatedly.  Second, you can go to Settings and check “Always show video of word spoken,” and the for each word, you’ll see a professional voiceover artist forming the sounds and saying the word at normal speed.

5. Introduces vocabulary effectively. Reading Bear introduces a lot of vocabulary.  In fact, by the time we’re finished, around 1,500 vocabulary items will be introduced and defined or described by Reading Bear’s sentences.  Even if a lot of it is familiar to preschoolers (“sat,” “dog”), some of it probably isn’t (“ebb,” “kid” in the sense of baby goat, many more).  In addition, there is a carefully-chosen, illustrative picture and video for each word.  Kids generally like these.  It “demystifies” the world of language that surrounds them.

Next are a couple more controversial points.

6. If Your Baby Can Read can make kids into early readers, Reading Bear probably can too. If you aren’t already convinced that baby reading is a good idea, I won’t be able to convince you here.  Suffice it to say that this happened with my own son, and he’s far from being the only one.  Beginning at 22 months, we used both Your Baby Can Read and flashcard versions of the word sets used by Reading Bear; he was decoding text at around the third grade level by his third birthday.  Many other cases of kids being taught to read early are documented online (e.g., on YouTube and BrillKids.com).  See my essay on baby reading for a video and more explanation and argumentation.

7. In the past, most early readers learned how to decode words by themselves; Reading Bear makes the same insights intuitive for kids. Studies have shown that–at least, in the past–most children who learned to read early generally learned to “crack the code” of phonics by themselves.  Perhaps because a parent or teacher has run a finger under the text while reading a lot, the child has learned how letters “make” sounds.  This is just the insight that Reading Bear makes extremely intuitive.  Even if a preschool class never gets past the “Sound It Out Slowly” presentations, I strongly suspect that the presentations will unlock reading for some preschoolers.  Please do not try to force this or even expect it (I never did with my child), but with the right methods, it can happen.  If it does, it’s something to encourage and support, not to stifle.

Ideas on using Reading Bear in preschool classrooms

Here is one way that I imagine Reading Bear being used in a preschool classroom. Suppose the class has three- and four-year-olds meeting five days a week for three hours a day.  Then you might want to show a full 15-minute presentation to the class daily.  You’d start with “short a,” select “Sound It Out Slowly,” and in Settings, uncheck “Pause and ask me to say the words.”  I’d invite the children to sing out the words while they are being sounded out or slowly blended.  These selections will ensure that the presentation is easiest to follow and simply plays like a video.  If school is twice a week, you might want to show half of it one day and the other half the next day.

I would show the same presentation two or three times with those settings (over the course of some days).  After that, I might show the words but with the “Pause and ask me to say the words” setting checked. Then the presentation will stop after the slow blended version, show the word, and ask, “What’s this say?”  It should be easy for preschoolers to say the words.  They are sounded out and blended slowly; all the students have to do is repeat the words at normal speed, and by this time they will have already seen and heard the words at normal speed 2-3 times.  If no or few of the children are participating, I’d leave the “Pause and ask me to say the words” setting checked.  That’s completely fine.  (I think it’s a bad idea to quiz little ones when they have no interest in participating.)

Whether you want to go any farther than that, for preschoolers, depends on the kids and you.  The question is whether you want to show your preschoolers the “Sound It Out Quickly” presentation type.  In this presentation type, Reading Bear only sounds out a word the quickly, and then I’d invite the students to say the word before going on.  Many students have difficulty going from sounding out to blending; this is one of the biggest hurdles in learning to read.  If it would require what you regard as excessive drilling to get many of your students to this point, you probably shouldn’t do it; don’t try the patience of little ones.

Even if you don’t teach the students how to blend words themselves, they’re still learning a lot, as I explained above.

Some students who are 2-4 years old are capable of learning how to blend.  If you are using individual workstations, or your students really are up to it, then you might want to go on and show them “Sound It Out Quickly.”  I’d show it to them 1-3 times (over a period of some days, again), until they can blend the word reliably.  Then you’d move on to “Let Me Sound It Out,” again only if students are able to take the next step and actually read the words (which, through repetition if nothing else, they might be able to do).  It’s up to you whether you want to call on students to read the words or have them shout the words out all together.

Some final steps might be to use the “silent flashcards” for quicker practice, and taking the quiz as a group.

Throughout the above, I would look for signs that the students are finding Reading Bear dull or too difficult.  It might get dull to you, but of course, little kids like repetition more than you do.  If they look bored or too challenged, though, I would not attempt to teach them the whole thing.  They’ll still be learning lots.

Then go on to the next presentation and, as they say–lather, rinse, repeat.

Just be sure to review old presentations (either individually or using the Review feature), because this helps the kids to keep their grasp of phonics rules fresh.  Just because they knew a rule a month or two ago doesn’t mean they still remember them.  And one other thing.  I suspect that even if you go through the first five presentations relatively quickly, just doing “Sound It Out Slowly” 2-3 times before moving on, this will help kids to learn how to blend.  You might find that they are blending words on a second pass through.  That happened with my son–he was able to blend words much better the second time we went through that first set of five presentations.