August 27, 2020

The Art of Buddy-Reading

When my girls were first learning to read, I stumbled (by accident as I tried various activities with them) upon a process I came to call buddy-reading. It worked really well for us, and I've recommended it regularly to many others since. But almost every time I suggest it, the person with whom I'm talking asks, "Buddy-reading? What's that?"

In a nutshell, buddy-reading is a way to help new or struggling readers practice the skills associated with reading - decoding, comprehension, etc. - in a positive, low-key manner. Buddy-reading also helps a parent understand a child's reading strengths and weaknesses in the context of relationship.

That last point - in the context of relationship - is key. In fact, it's the key to the entire process of homeschooling, as it is a loving parent-child relationship - not turning our homes into mini-schools - that fuels effective home education. That's why - with helping a child learn to read and everything else - I advocate ignoring the regimented, standardized approach the schools take in favor of seeing home education as a simple extension of parenting.

In terms of buddy-reading, this translates into employing the approach most of us associate with reading aloud to our babies and preschoolers with our older, learning-to-read kids as well, and keeping things easy-going, warm, and relational - starting only when each child has actually demonstrated readiness to learn to read - instead of making it a formal, mechanistic process.

With that in mind, this is what I did with my children as each was learning to read and then growing in fluency - roughly from age five to about nine or 10 in our case. I started out using just the Amish Pathway Reading series - only the primers, not the workbooks - which I highly recommend, until the girls were about eight and nine, and then eventually added in my Readers' Workshop tool as well.
  1. Find a comfortable, cozy spot - such as your living room couch or propped up with pillows in your bed - and cuddle up with your child, book in hand. The idea is to associate reading with warmth and positive feelings;
  2. Read the title of the book or story aloud and then take a few minutes to turn the pages and talk - conversationally, not in quiz-mode - about the illustrations. Gently encourage the child's use of descriptive, expressive language and see if he can make predictions about the storyline based on the pictures;
  3. Ask the child if he would like to read the first page - or if he would prefer for you to. Honor his decision and start accordingly. Then alternate every other page (i.e., if you read the first page, the child reads the second, etc.);
  4. When you read, be sure the child can see the text and encourage him to pay attention, but don't run your finger under the words. Aim for the process to be as natural as possible - as when you read aloud at story time - and rely on the appropriateness and topic of the text to draw him in;
  5. When your child reads, let him run his own finger under the words if it helps him; if it doesn't, don't require it. When he gets to a word he cannot decode, just supply him for it (without making him labor over it or "sound it out") and keep going. Provide appropriate praise as he proceeds;
  6. Read all the way through the story, alternating pages. As you read and/or at the end, take time to discuss - again, in conversation, not quiz-style. Think about how you'd talk about a favorite book with an adult friend and use that as your model as you talk about the story with your child. When the discussion seems to be over, tell your child what a good job he did, give him a hug, and send him on his way;
  7. The next day, get situated in a similarly comfortable manner and pull out the same book/story. Talk about the story for a few minutes if the child wants to - i.e., if he says he thought about some new things related to the story since the previous day - and then ask him to begin reading it aloud to you;
  8. For this second reading, the goal is for the child to read the entire story to you. But allow him to ask for help when he gets stuck on a word, and oblige if he asks you to read a page now and then after he's read several. If there's a word that you know - from past experience - he can sound out rather quickly, encourage him to do so. But if it's a sight word or a newer decodable word, just supply it to him so the flow of the reading continues and the experience stays positive;
  9. At the end of the story, praise him appropriately for reading the entire story to you. Then ask him to tell you the story in his own words. This is a comprehension check - no need for quizzes or tests when you've got a relationship with your child! - and you'll quickly know if he grasped the gist of the story. Then give him a hug and move on with your day;
  10. In the evening on the second day, arrange for the child to read the same story aloud to your spouse - so, yes, the child gets three readings of each story, which builds confidence and "muscle memory." Tell your spouse ahead of time to listen actively as the child reads and to simply supply any words on which the child stumbles or asks for help, without pressure. And encourage your spouse to talk about the story with the child afterward - again, in conversation mode, not quiz/school-style - and praise him for the effort.
  11. Move on to a new story the next day. Rinse, wash, repeat.
I know this seems almost too easy - and probably leads you to wonder, "What about phonics instruction?" I'm definitely a phonics fan - and I worked on letter identification, matching sounds to letters, and sounding-out and blending, etc.,  with my kids before we ever began the buddy-reading process. In fact, I spent a pretty penny (far too much!) on a bells-and-whistles phonics program I thought was the Holy Grail of reading instruction. But God blessed me with a right-brained learner in one of my kids - meaning that she learns whole-to-part, not part-to-whole. As such, she had a hard time with isolated phonics lessons but began to thrive as we read - buddy-read - the Amish Pathway series, because the real stories provided her with context that enabled her to decode unfamiliar words. In fact, even her left-brained sister did better with her reading within the context of real stories. And one strength of the Amish series over randomly picked "easy-reader" or favorite picture books from our shelves was the leveled, incremental method built into it - so, even though we were reading real stories, they were also instructional and phonics-based by design.

As we dug into the series - and grew in relationship - via our daily buddy-reading, I was able to challenge the girls to pause now and then and really "sound out" a new word instead of just saying it for them - so I still employed phonics in that way as well. But I found that the girls rather naturally took that on for themselves more often than not as their confidence increased and their enjoyment of buddy-reading grew. Once we started buddy-reading - leaving the kitchen table and the worksheets and drill-and-kill lessons in favor of this more holistic approach - all the pieces fell into place rather quickly and learning to read became a joy, not a burden.

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