In the course of responding on the “readbygrade3” mailing list (I’m a subscriber), I came across this page on ReadingRockets.org. I was greatly struck by the fact that, here in 2012, professional advisers to reading teachers state that, by the end of first grade, a good student “has a reading vocabulary of 300 to 500 words, sight words and easily sounded out words.” This, I think, is a travesty.  At the end of first grade, students should be able to read whatever words they can comprehend, meaning (of course) many thousands of words.

Rudolph Flesch maintained, on the basis of a great deal of first-hand experience, that there is no reason why the vast majority of first graders should not be able to read–period!–at the end of the first grade. At the end of that year, they ought to be able to pick up any book, as long as the vocabulary is comprehensible to them, and read it. Decoding should present zero difficulties. Period. And so by the end of first grade, they have no need for contrived basal readers. They can start reading actual literature. For what it’s worth, my six-year-old is downstairs reading The Secret Garden–his choice–in the original version right now. I fostered his literacy from babyhood and he started reading when he was two.

I’m using Reading Bear and other resources to teach my second son to read. He is 25 months old. We started seriously when he was around 18-20 months. He’s up to presention #11, capable of getting 13-15 out of 15 on the quizzes on that material. He can read (with a little help) any of the first 8 or so stories on Starfall’s excellent Learn to Read page, as well as any of the stories on Literactive’s level 1. I fully expect my two-year-old to get through all of the word lists on Reading Bear and to be decoding (not necessarily comprehending) at a 3rd grade level by his third birthday. My first son developed in a very similar way four years ago.

If my two-year-olds can do this, your six-year-olds can do it. Teachers, now that Reading Bear is complete and 100% free, you have no excuse. I understand that your districts impose a lot of top-down control of curriculum. But you still have some freedom. Reading Bear’s presentations are 15 minutes long, and you can definitely take that much time out of your busy day for this program. Let’s say you don’t have access to a computer lab. Fine, but surely you have a projector. If all you do is show Reading Bear’s presentations for 15 minutes each day for the 180 days of first grade, you’ll be giving your students the gift of literacy.

To begin with, spend a week on each presentation for the first 10-15 presentations (or better, four days on a new presentation and one day on review). After that, students will catch on much faster, so you’ll be able to spend less than a week on each one. You’ll also discover that you don’t need to show the full, 15-minute “Sound It Out Slowly” presentations; as time goes on, you’ll be able to go on to the “Sound It Out Quickly” and “Let Me Sound It Out” presentations.

Teachers, your first graders can be decoding at an advanced level by the end of the year. Being able to do that now, rather than after the third or fourth grade, opens up the whole world of books to them, and not just easy, decodable picture books, either, but chapter books. Prove me wrong–why not give it a try? What could you lose? It’s easy to do–you’re just showing and reacting to a presentation. Your students will be exposed systematically to over 100 phonics rules, according to Flesch’s time-established method, as well as vocabulary. I personally guarantee that, at the very least, you won’t be wasting your time.