Learning to read…by looking at pictures?

I do not recall how I learned to read. I was educated to grade 6 in Switzerland, not North America, but I can almost positively attest to the fact that the types of ‘learning to read’ books I took home were not in the style that my kids take them home now.

Back in the day when Ben was learning to read in Kindergarten, I was curious as to why it was allowed for the child to actually depend on the picture to help him understand what he was reading. Like many parents, sometimes I covered the picture and asked him to read the word by itself. If he didn’t want to or couldn’t, or if he would get slightly stressed, I would let it go. Instead, I would encourage him to tell me what the first letter of that word was, and to make the sound it makes.

“B b b for the letter B”, he would say.

“That’s right”, I would answer.

Sometimes, when I noticed him looking at the picture, I would ask him:

“Where does it say baseball on this page?”

He would look at the picture first, not the word. Then we’d go through the steps of letter recognition and sounds, again.

Other scenarios would have him look and subsequently read the word correctly on the page.

“It says soccer, yes, but not only because of the soccer ball in the picture. What letter does the word soccer begin with?”

Ben is now in grade 2 and has little problem with reading.

Sonja is in SK and she does the exact same thing. She even tells me, rather proudly, that she uses the picture to help her read.

I was perplexed but never gave it too much thought. Eventually, she too will be a good reader, like the rest of the family.

But what is it with this picture thing in books? I never understood how this helps a child to read the word. Is there a method behind it that I was missing?

Yes. There is. Sonja’s SK teacher, who incidentally was also Ben’s for SK, explained it very eloquently the other night at parent-teacher interview. And I am so glad to understand it, finally.

She said this by illustrating with an example:

There is a book that has a picture of a combined excavator/bulldozer machine on one page. The children, mostly boys, would take this book home to read to the parents and upon looking at the picture announce that it says “This is a bulldozer”.

In fact, the words say “This is an excavator”.

Parents would approach the teacher and say “he’s not reading the word, he’s looking at the picture”.

The teacher’s reaction was often surprising to those parents. She said that at this point, it is important for the child to think about what the whole book is about, or specifically, what the page is talking about. If the child incorrectly ‘reads’ the word bulldozer by looking at the picture, as far as the teacher is concerned, he is using the correct thought-process. Theoretically, a bulldozer is like an excavator, belonging to the same family of construction machines.

If the child did this to her while he was reading with her in her classroom, she would congratulate him for thinking the correct thoughts regarding the page he was looking at. She would then go a step further, and ask him what letter, or sound, the word bulldozer starts with. He would then say ‘b b B’.

“Yes, that’s right, B B Bulldozer starts with the letter B!”.

Then she would wait. Will the child notice that the word on the page starts with E and not B?

If he did, she would help him read the word, or at least the first part of the word, the first letter. If he did not, she would ask him to find the word on the page, and recognize the first letter.

Never would she cover the picture with her hand.

“The objective”, she said to us, “is to allow the child to think for herself to figure out what the first letter, or the whole word, looks and sounds like.”



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