Teaching Reading Before Decoding? Yes!

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Think of a little one you know reading a book to you — even though they can’t decode. They may not be able to read the words, but can you see the high-level moves they are using? If not, you may think that pre-conventional readers spit back out a story they’ve learned by rote. However, early literacy teachers Kathy Collins and Matt Glover have documented at least 7 strategic cognitive moves that young readers make before decoding. As their teacher, you can help students build these up before or alongside decoding.

1. Apply comprehension skills and strategies

Children make meaning from picture books long before they can read the words. Consider a kid who during reading asks, “Where did Knuffle Bunny go?” They are trying to comprehend and have just used the strategy of questioning.

2. Read smoothly, fluently, and expressively

Pre-decoding kids read with amazing expression! They share their excitement, take on the emotions of characters, and use a combination of their own words and those they remember from reading with adults.

3. Acquire vocabulary and extend their oral language

Four-year-olds have a vocabulary of more than 1,500 words, and five-year-olds as many as 2,500. Few children learn those words by decoding them or through explicit classroom instruction. They learn them through talking and listening with adults and by reading with adults — many times through repeated exposure to favorite texts.

4. Utilize the social component of reading to their advantage

Kids love to tell us what they are reading and why they enjoy it. As they do so, their understanding increases, but they also come to enjoy being members of a community of readers and the many benefits that brings.

5. Use text features to figure out tricky passages

Before they know what a schwa sound is, emerging readers use pictures, graphic elements, even pop-ups or tactile features to increase their comprehension of passages that are beyond their background knowledge.

6. Form reading identities

You know that boy who can’t get enough shark books? Or the girl who always takes a book into a special corner of the classroom? They are building a reading life. They are recognizing what they love about reading — the language, genres, or content they are drawn to — and discovering that they are readers who value books.

7. Respond to texts

We’ve all seen little kids playacting the story from a favorite book or going a step further and taking the part of that character in an adventure of their own imagining. This response to a text requires understanding the motivations and behaviors of the character. We’ve also all seen when another child will correct a peer who is not playing a character accurately. Yet more evidence that preconventional readers are making sensitive, sophisticated use of skills and strategies to comprehend a narrative.

For more on the amazing work that readers do before they can decode, read I Am Reading by Kathy Collins and Matt Glover (Heinemann 2015).

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