A challenge to first grade reading teachers: read in one year! No excuses!

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.






Please do dive in (politely). I want your reactions!

12 responses to “A challenge to first grade reading teachers: read in one year! No excuses!”

  1. JoAnne

    I think a follow-up to making Reading Bear more effective, especially for classroom teachers, would be to work on a series of free, printable phonics activities that students can do in the classroom or at home to review the words being studied by the class.

    1. We’ve casually toyed with that idea, but I don’t think I’m the person to write such a thing. My guess is that the organization behind Reading Bear will eventually add that to the website. Higher priority from my point of view is a set of e-readers.

      1. Please just say, “No,” to phonics activities. Phonics is the sound/symbol relationship and requires “speaking and using sounds” in order to be effective. It has to be oral, out loud and noisy – worksheets are not!

        E-readers are the perfect addition to Reading Bear! And they have to go beyond “The fat cat sat on the rat” which may practice a specific phonogram but really does not lend itself to “understanding.”

        1. JoAnne

          Fran, I don’t happen to believe that the activities are necessary, either. My older so is 4.5 and reading at a 3rd grade level, largely by way of pure audio/visual cues. We used the I See Sam readers and some Montessori-inspired activities that didn’t involve writing, as he was far too young for writing. That being said, the question here is how to legitimize Reading Bear for classroom use, and you can’t really avoid activities in that context. Whether the teachers will be having the students writing sight word sentences, as in the classroom I recently visited, or “color by number” sight words, or else working with the words in Reading Bear could make a difference. Even standards like the color by number sight word could be turned into a “color by phonogram/sound” word, to highlight that the “ee” in “see” works together to make one long e sound.

          As a former classroom teacher (middle grades, though every single one of my students could have benefitted from a back to basics approach to reading) I know that the simplest tools often don’t succeed or gain traction because there isn’t a “whole curriculum” built around it that the schools can buy. And of course, if you don’t have to buy it, it’s not worth something, at least not to the educational cartels.

        2. JoAnne

          Incidentally, the Montessori “pink, blue, green” sequence is very similar to that used by Reading Bear. Teachers looking for fun activities could look there. My son and I did a lot of matching word cards to picture cards, building words with a movable alphabet (letter magnets or letter cards), etc. These could be “reading center” activities in a K or 1st classroom, or even take-home work.

        3. JoAnne

          Look at these free printable activities as an example: http://thehelpfulgarden.blogspot.com/2011/11/pink-reading-series.html

          We also used a few iPad apps along this line, especially the free Preschool University apps, which are Montessori inspired. There is a freely available UK Letters and Sounds phonics program with activities on various sites like Sparklebox.co.uk or Twinkl.co.uk, and one of the things they have in common with these Montessori activities is that they use phonogram frames to spell out words, and have various short activities (Phrases, yes/no questions) to help the student practice reading without having to read whole stories or readers. I think Reading Bear readers would be great, too.

  2. Yes, I know Don Potter.
    In the Bears, are the firs 6 letters taught: c a t
    d o g? they should be, to prevent b/d confusion.
    It would be useful for some research to compare Reding Bears and Step by Step/phonics4free !
    Gove will cut 1,000 education jobs! latest news, so at last we may look for improvement! He should also close LEAs!

  3. PokerDad

    Just wanted to say, way to throw down the gauntlet! I hope someone takes you up on this

  4. PokerDad

    Looks to me as though roughly 1 in 3 third graders lack reading proficiency in Ohio:


    Perhaps the state ought to take up your challenge Larry?

    1. Good point there, PokerDad!

  5. Alaskamum

    I think having e-reader to go with reading bear would be perfect. I am using it with my 3 children. It is a great resource and my kids are learning a lot from it but it isn’t enough for my kids to be fluent readers. I am going through the Don Potter site and using their readers for now but they don’t quite match up. Only my oldest can do readers. My 4 year old can blend simple words but still needs to sound things out. I heard my 2 year old spontaneously say a word or 2 but she mostly listens and doesn’t sound things out yet. My 6 year old does great during the presentations on reading bear but it isn’t translating to her reading completely. She still makes mistakes especially on what vowel to use. I hope by starting earlier with my 2 year old she will catch on faster but I definitely don’t see the progress you describe with your little ones but it definitely isn’t a waste of time and it is helping all of them. I tell lots of people about reading bear but most people don’t realize just how good it is. It would definitely make a great asset to classrooms especially in areas where kids do not score well in reading and where they don’t really teach a full phonics curriculum.

  6. […] early education can do great things for little kids. It’s a completely avoidable national disgrace that so many kids don’t exit first grade knowing how to […]

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