Western researcher develops new approach to supporting beginning readers

January 31, 2017

Lori McKee’s unique strategy for supporting children in learning to read helps kids read and understand a wider variety of books, from a younger age, than ever before.

If you can read this, odds are, you developed the skill somewhere between the ages of 4 and 9. There’s also a good chance you learned to read (recognizing words and identifying sound patterns) before you practiced reading to learn (reading to gain information).

It’s been a long-standing belief that children had to learn to read before they could read to learn. Western Education researcher Lori McKee set out to disrupt that idea.

“In the 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 as we support them in learning to read. To start the process sooner.”

She began developing a strategy called “read, stop, think, ask, connect” as part of her Master’s degree. The strategy, recently published in the November/December edition of the academic journal The Reading Teacher, walks children through a series of five steps.

“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.”

Once they’ve read, the stop part of the strategy reminds children to stop frequently while reading so that they can then think about the information and consider any clues that may exist about how the text is organized. Procedural texts, for example, use words like first, second, third, etc. In this step, children are also encouraged to think about synthesizing information from the words, pictures and charts, as different information may exist in each.

The ask strategy then has kids ask questions to author and attempt to answer them.

“It’s really neat to see young kids 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?’”

The last step is connect, where children make connections to different texts or things in their own lives to help them understand and gain information.

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 a second Grade 1 class. The move introduced the concept of reading to learn to the students at least two years earlier than normal, but 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 strategy we found the kids were far more eager to read them, and would even pick them over story books when given the choice.”

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

“The editors felt the approach was quite 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.”