Back in elementary school I was always wary of reading assignments. I didn’t like to read—the activity was actually very difficult for me. Reading seemed like a huge chore, and I could never seem to make sense of what I had read. It was boring. While I always seemed to get good grades, the truth was that I had reading problems.
I had all but forgotten about my childhood woes with reading until one of my kids seems to have the very same issue I had. When you can get her to sit long enough to actually read a paragraph, you are still not going to get any results from her. She won’t remember a single bit of what she had just read. She has the same issue I had had.
She struggles through everything she reads and seems to have no comprehension of the meaning of the words she is reading. You might have her read out loud, and you’ll hear her speak every single word in the sequence they’re typed on a page… and still she won’t comprehend. She could know the meaning of every single word in isolation… but the paragraph or story is a complete mystery to her.
The problem with her is equal to what I had as a kid. I would read the words, individually, and each word would be disjointed. A sentence would be broken up into its components but would not relate… so "The cat” was an entity that didn’t relate to "chased” or "the mouse.” Certainly, one sentence did not meld with the next.
The solution to this reading problem is very simple, once you get it in your mind. You cannot allow yourself to get caught on specific words. In fact, a real reader doesn’t even pay attention to individual words. Words are tools (means) to the goal of understanding something (end). If you or your child has this problem, the solution is to stop caring about each word but rather to pay attention to the intent of an entire sentence as it relates to the subject of study. Try to anticipate and pull the meaning out of text; if successful, the words gather their meaning.
My grandpa once told me that when he was a young man he would always sit down to read the paper. He said he would often read from cover to cover, but he could never remember a single thing he had read. He kept reading, despite the apparent lack of comprehension, because he felt it was what adults were supposed to do. It wasn’t until later on in life that reading became meaningful. It was largely due to his growing interest in the study of religion that he became a more profitable reader… because suddenly he was reading for a purpose worthwhile to himself rather than partaking in an activity that was not a personal search for comprehension.
Teaching kids a giant vocabulary doesn’t make them successful readers. Teaching them to read one word at a time isn’t a good idea. Teaching them to look for meaning, and to be interested in learning, is what really teaches kids to read. The fact is that when you teach kids to read and look for meaning… they grow much bigger and useful vocabularies much more quickly than by teaching them single words first.
When I was in elementary school my teachers thought that I was a smart kid because I could pass the spelling tests. But passing those tests was not very useful, since I couldn’t understand what I read. It wasn’t until I started to ignore words I didn’t know and just look for the intent of reading that I became proficient at reading.
There are many reading programs out there to help people learn how to read. From ones that are aimed at young children (browse PBS Kids) to adult classes. Take one minute to browse the internet and you'll find the list is long. I'm sure that almost all of them have some degree of merit. In the end, though, the most important thing is not the specific curriculum--but being aware that reading is about communication and understanding. If you learn to read words but don't learn to understand the meaning behind sentences, paragraphs and books as a whole... you don't really know how to read.