On Teaching Children to Read

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Children are all foreigners.”  It is with this in mind that I take to the task of teaching them to read. Teachers must go about teaching students to read without assuming that they already know anything. We should start from the most basic building blocks and work up from there. This being said, I think that the best method for teaching children to read would be a very comprehensive approach that includes the best techniques from either strategy, whether it is “bottom-up” or “top-down”.

If we take a look at our nation, America is a testament to diversity. In one classroom a teacher could easily have students from several different cultures. With these diverse cultures come different approaches to life and learning. An elementary I recently observed in Fort Worth, Texas had certain days that the students in the lower grades were taught in Spanish and certain days that the students were taught in English. This alternating method was used to help the students that were not as fluent in English progress through the curriculum as they progress through the language. However, once they reach second grade all classes were in English. This is one of the ways that this school, which was nationally recognized, has adapted to meet the needs of its young readers.

In examining the top-down approach, there are arguments in support of and against this approach.

“Whole language is considered a “top down” approach where the reader constructs a personal meaning for a text based on using their prior knowledge to interpret the meaning of what they are reading. Problems associated with whole language include a lack of structure that has been traditionally supplied by the scope and sequence, lessons and activities, and extensive graded literature found in basal readers. Whole language puts a heavy burden on teachers to develop their own curriculum.” 2

While one of the strongest positives in this approach is that it mimics the way we naturally learn as babies by being immersed in a learning environment and imitating what we see until we get it right. This way there is room for error as we are trying to perfect our skills. As with children learning to walk, there are times when they fall but eventually they can walk confidently.

Taking a look at the bottom-up method, there are some positive and negative aspects to this technique. One of the criticisms for bottom-up is that it is too rigid in requiring students to be correct from the beginning. Some say that this stifles creativity from an early age. I read one example where a student wrote a well elaborated sentence about a dog, although it was misspelled, but when the demand of spelling correctly was placed on the student, he or she merely wrote a simple unelaborated sentence. While students need to be taught how to spell correctly, they also need opportunities to develop their vocabulary and learn how to elaborate without fear of being wrong.

I believe one of the strongest lessons that I can teach my students is to not be afraid to be wrong. Strive for being right, but don’t be afraid to be wrong, because if you are wrong and afraid to admit it, then you may not learn how to be right. It was Plato who said, “Never discourage anyone…who continually makes progress, no matter how slow. Bringing one’s wrongs to light so that they may be corrected is great progress.  If a teacher can instill this in their students then that teacher will have a more accurate idea of how effective the child’s education is.

In conclusion, “Research shows that exemplary teachers rarely rely on a single approach or method. Instead they teach according to the needs of children, not by strictly following any one approach or set of materials.” 3  Therefore, a teacher should provide the maximum amount of opportunities for children to absorb the process of learning to read, incorporating the best ideals from each method, ideally immersing students in spoken and written language while incorporating the link between letter-sounds and spellings how all the parts come together to make a whole.


  1.  Allington, Richard, and Sherry Guice. “Learning To Read: What Research Says Parents Can Do to Help Their Children.” CELA Redirecting. Web. 31 Jan. 2011. <http://cela.albany.edu/publication/article/learnread.htm&gt;.
  2. Reyhner, Jon. “Reading Wars: Phonics vs. Whole Language.” Www2.nau.edu. Web. 31 Jan. 2011. <http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~jar/Reading_Wars.html&gt;.
  3. Smith, John A., and Sylvia Read. “What Is Reading/Components of Reading/ Word Identification.” Early Literacy Instruction: Teaching Readers and Writers in Today’s Primary Classroom. Boston: Pearson, 2009. 5. Print.

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