Debunking "Learn to Read and then Read to Learn"


It's catchy. And if you've been in education for any length of time, you've heard this one. "First kids learn to read, and then they read to learn." And you usually hear this in relation to that jump from second to third grade, with folks saying that kids "learn to read" in kindergarten, first, and second grades through decoding and phonics instruction. Then in third grade there's a shift to "read to learn" that focuses solely on reading for information and comprehension and lasts through the end of their school careers.

I disagree. And I'm gonna get weedy about it.

A lot of this began in the early part of the 20th century, when children would practice letter-sound relationships and memorize spelling rules without any practice in a text. In the 1930s, the look-say method took hold and advocated for children learning whole words in basal readers and on flash cards. Then in the 1960s, the pendulum swung again with a heavy emphasis on systematic, explicitly taught phonics and comprehension was simply "caught" along the way. 

Through all of this, a couple of ideas took hold. One is that children have to learn to decode before they can comprehend. Another is that students stop decoding in second or third grade. It's as if you have these two very separate and hierarchical reading tracks that don't really cross.

Research over the past 20 years by folks such as Marie Clay, David Pearson, and others has debunked this idea.

What we've learned is that students can and should begin comprehending text as they begin to decode. In the early days, those texts may be very simple, but students can still understand the content and should be taught to attend to it. If we wait until third grade or above to attend to good, thorough comprehension, we have waited far, far too late. We've also learned that students don't and shouldn't stop decoding in second or third grade or beyond. Students - and especially those who struggle to read - need continued work in decoding and multisyllabic word work to become proficient readers as they progress through the upper elementary grades.

And if we want to get super, super weedy about it, I think we need to have a common definition of what we mean when we say "reading." To me, "reading" is more than decoding. It's the process of both decoding and understanding text to get meaning from it. Which is, after all, why we do this work. 

So, reading isn't built on two separate tracks that never meet. We don't learn to read and then read to learn. Reading well happens when two intertwined threads in the same rope work together from kindergarten to middle school and beyond.

Here's to simply teaching well,

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