Helping beginner readers learn to read, read to learn

Lori McKee, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education, developed a strategy that exposes beginner readers to instructional, non-fiction texts early to support their reading development, while also teaching them something new.

Cory Habermehl // Special to Western NewsLori McKee, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education, developed a strategy that exposes beginner readers to instructional, non-fiction texts early to support their reading development, while also teaching them something new.

If you are in the midst of teaching your child how to read, you might just be able to teach them something else in the process.

A long-standing belief among academics, teachers and parents alike indicates in order to learn something new from a book, a child must first know how to read the text. To teach children, we need to ensure they can first recognize the words and sound patterns on a page. In other words, children need to learn to read, before they can read to learn.

Lori McKee, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education, set out to disrupt that idea.

“In literature, and in practice, there was this notion you had to be a proficient reader before you could read to gain information,” said McKee. “I wanted to know how we could support kids in reading to learn, at the same time, support them in learning to read – to start the (learning) process sooner.”

She began developing a strategy called Read, Stop, Think, Ask, Connect as part of her master’s degree, which she completed at Western. The strategy, published in a recent edition of an academic journal titled The Reading Teacher, walks children, who are in the process of learning to read, through a series of five steps while they read informational texts and non-fiction materials such as children’s magazines, or instructional, ‘how-to’ books that are geared towards children.

To learn new things while learning to read, instead of reading a picture book, beginner readers could engage with something like National Geographic Kids while walking through the Read, Stop, Think, Ask, Connect strategy.

“It begins by having children read a small portion of text to identify and gather information from the different sources on the page, whether it be words, diagrams, labels or images,” said McKee. “Reading to learn involves non-fiction texts which have lots of vocabulary kids may not recognize, so they can’t read too much at once.”

The stop part of McKee’s strategy indicates the child should pause frequently while reading in order to think about the information on the page, the accompanying visual clues and how they are organized. The ask portion of the strategy has children come up with questions they might want to ask the author, asking them to attempt and come up with an answer on their own. The last step is to connect, where children are asked to make connections between what they see on the page with different texts they are familiar with, or something in their own lives, in order to help them process the new information.

“It’s really neat to see young kids (hypothetically) talk to the author like they’re friends,” said McKee. “They’ll literally ask ‘Hey, Jerry, why did you do this? How’s it going to help me understand?’”

McKee, who completed her master’s degree part-time while working as a Grade 1 teacher, implemented the strategy in her classroom, while her colleague implemented it in another Grade 1 class. They introduced the use of non-fiction and instructional texts alongside the concept of ‘reading to learn’ to the students at least two years earlier than the curriculum normally indicates. The outcomes spoke for themselves.

“The kids loved it,” said McKee. “They connected with non-fiction texts in a whole different way, and because we did this across two classes, the children could talk with each other about what they were reading and how they were reading it.”

Combining reading to learn with learning to read helped improve the children’s reading ability by helping them interact more deeply with informational texts, said McKee.

“Informational texts had always been a part of our classroom libraries, but after implementing the (five-step) strategy, we found the kids were far more eager to read them, and would even pick them over story books when given the choice.”

McKee’s work, and its results, yielded an enthusiastic response from The Reading Teacher.

“The editors felt the approach was unique and extremely valuable for supporting young children in learning to deal with the more challenging informational texts,” said McKee. “I was actually surprised by their reaction – to me, this just seemed like the logical thing to try.”

The strategy is designed to be flexible in order to address a variety of texts, as well as the diverse ways children may learn to read. McKee hopes teachers will adapt the strategy further to better support young readers with a broad range of literacy backgrounds and experiences.

“It was wonderful how much the kids enjoyed this,” said McKee. “Where at first they felt like non-fiction was for older kids, we opened up more opportunities for them to better engage with those books. Developing a strategy to support beginning readers in understanding non-fiction may not be commonplace, but I’m happy to have taken that chance and I hope to see others adopt the approach.”