Reading Behaviors ≠ Reading

When I became a reading interventionist, my first graders taught me that Guided Reading isn’t as effective as I had once believed. Initially, my attention was on my readers’ “strengths.” Mistakes in reading were not problems but rather “miscues,” windows into my students’ minds and reassurance that they needed me for guidance as they read.

But as I observed my students, I noticed them develop misunderstandings about reading. 

Reading Is Memorization

My students settled in to reread yesterday’s book, My Little Dog

Rodney began to turn the page, unfazed by his miscues, so I prompted him to try again.

Another student interrupted: “It’s ‘my little dog likes!’”

I didn’t get any further in prompting Rodney before he reread the page correctly. He continued with the right pattern for the rest of the book, but the moment gave me pause. 

Rodney wasn’t reading and he didn’t even know it. 

Reading Is Making Up Stories

I was invited to watch the lesson of another teacher. The students reread yesterday’s book, The Very Busy Hen, but one child flipped through the pages and quietly recited words from a different predictable text about a farm. 

What Armani did was no different than my students. Because they couldn’t yet read, they were making up or recalling stories.

The books were so predictable, I had no way of knowing if my students were reading. Even when they appeared to be reading accurately, they might have been reciting words from memory. 

“I can’t read that book. I don’t know it.”

One student hadn’t begun her independent reading so I selected a leveled book from the book bin on her desk.

Me: Will you read to me?

Kalina: I can’t read that book. I don’t know it.

My stomach dropped. This was no different than Rodney, but it struck me harder this time. There is something wrong if students must know what a book says before they can read it. Reading is powerful precisely because books contain ideas we haven’t yet thought of.

“I can read this book with my eyes shut!”

Two months into first grade and after more than 30 Leveled Literacy Intervention books, my students still didn’t know that words are a necessary part of reading. 

Angel: “I can read this book with my eyes shut!”

I had taught the phonics components of these lessons, prompted students to point to the words as they read, and called their attention to letter sounds they knew. But memorizing the patterns and using the pictures was easier for them than decoding and my students knew it. 

I committed to reciting the refrain, “If you’re not looking at the words, it’s not reading.”

Reading Requires Only First and Last Letters

I showed my students a copy of Meli on the Stairs and pointed to the title, 

Me: “Meli on…” 

My students: “the steps!” 

Me: “The word is stairs. Can you say, stairs? It’s another word for steps.”

And as I said this, I realized my students might have been able to read the word steps– most of them knew the letter sounds in that word- but they could not read stairs because I had not taught them long-a. Why was I giving them a book with words they could not be expected to read? How could I teach them letter sounds and tell them, “It’s not reading if you’re not looking at the words,” but then give them words that didn’t match the phonics I had taught?

Reading Is Matching Illustrations and Words

I flipped through our next book, Homes and looked for words my students could read. 

As I looked more closely at the book, I saw there were opportunities for words my students could read (bug) but another word had been chosen instead (spider). Why? It was like the writer of the book wanted my students to pay more attention to the pictures than the words.

My students needed their instruction in first grade to prepare them for the texts they would soon encounter that had no pictures. I began to realize I was failing them.

“We don’t want students to pay too much attention to the letters.”

I approached the intervention coordinator about my concerns. I told her my students weren’t paying attention to the words in their books and that even if they did pay attention, they wouldn’t be able to read many of the words.

Coordinator: That’s okay. We don’t want students to pay too much attention to the letters. That would slow them down as they read and they wouldn’t be able to make meaning of the text.

Me: But if they don’t slow down and pay attention to the letters and words now, how are they going to learn to read?

Coordinator: You know, there is more to reading than letters and sounds. The visual is just one part of reading. Meaning and structure are as important, if not more so. 

The lesson materials, training and data tracker I received directed me to teach my students that letters are not essential to reading. But I felt I couldn’t teach my students that letters matter during writing time, only to cover them during reading.

Leveled texts seemed to require guessing strategies that I couldn’t bring myself to teach. 

Reading Is Frustrating

I no longer saw my students’ reading behaviors as strengths. I saw them using meaning and structure to compensate for their inability to decode. They relied on pictures, predictable language structures, and first or last letters to guess words. 

Students who were English learners were unable to guess as effectively as those with larger vocabularies and so they would read bowl for dish and chicken for hen. This led them to confuse the letters and sounds I had taught them (b for d) and mispronounce words (chick-hen). It became harder to sell my students on new books because they knew as well as I did that they were not likely to be successful reading them.

Andrea: Do we have to do a new book? Why can’t we just do the ones we know?

Teaching Reading Is Frustrating

My colleagues were also struggling. Some of them went in search of materials intended for kindergarten because they wanted more books their students could appear to read and the first grade kit had gotten too hard.

One interventionist asked our leaders: Do you want me to teach LLI or do you want me to teach kids to read?

I wasn’t the only one who felt that what our students were doing wasn’t reading.

Another interventionist: This cueing thing isn’t reading. They are pretending to read and we are pretending to teach reading.

I was done pretending. Done with guided reading. And ready to learn how to teach reading in a way that communicated to my students that meaning and enjoyment can be derived from the words on the page. 

I threw myself into researching reading because my students were waiting for me to teach them. It wasn’t easy,  for me or for them, but the only regret I carry is that I didn’t do it sooner. I had been teaching for almost ten years before I began learning about the instruction that most children need to become skilled readers.

16 Replies to “Reading Behaviors ≠ Reading”

  1. I LOVE this. So impressed that you took that difficult journey AND I love your description of the way that the science of reading does NOT embrace teachers or bring them into the fold.

    I run a small tutoring center. We do a LOT Of work with dyslexic students, and we use a large number of very effective tools. I have done a follow along to your description of what happens to teachers when confronted (CONFRONTED) with reading science.

  2. Kim Entzminger says:

    I had a very similar experience when I left my kindergarten classroom to become the reading interventionist at my school. I had a lot of push back from the powers that be about my use of systematic phonics and intensive phonological awareness interventions with some of my students. I made a decision to teach children to read and not teach LLI or Reading Recovery at a meeting for a 3rd grade child with an IQ in the 97th percentile who was going into special education because he couldn’t decode. I felt very strongly that if I had caught his phonological awareness and rapid naming difficulties earlier, we would not be having that meeting. I spoke to my administration who gave me a green light to do what I needed to do. I now head our intervention program as a Literacy Coach. Now when I look at our Academically Gifted students who qualify for advanced placement, I count off the students who were in reading intervention for similar issues in kindergarten and first grade. We have to stop looking at what is popular or trendy and do what the research tells us benefits our students. We don’t teach programs, we teach children.

    • That is a great all too frequent story! We frequently find the same thing. Academically advanced students who cannot read/decode OR who have severely damaged reading comprehension.

      These are FIXABLE problems, but all too often they are not detected until the student is in middle or high school. He or she has been able to use brute processing power to just memorize a LOT of words, but they do NOT link reading to comprehension and it shows up dramatically in standardized tests, where they may have great math aptitude but show very dissimilar reading comprehension.

  3. Sharon Hillestad says:

    I read WHY JOHNNY CAN’T READ by Rudolph Flesch in 1980. It was written in 1955. It totally explains the reason teachers are unable to teach every child how to read. Because of that book a group of teachers founded THE READING REFORM FOUNDATION in 1963. I was a new teacher at the time. I learned how to help children learn to really read words not guess at them because of that group of teachers. We cannot expect the publishers of leveled readers (books) to embrace a technique of teaching children that would have them reading library books. There’s no money in that.

  4. Kamaria says:

    Can you share the instruction that you do now?

  5. Sheila Marie Sjostrom Ames says:

    I agree my son is 16 he reads 2nd grade level at least that is what teachers say I have he read to me and he doesn’t know first grade sight words. I have to correct him constantly on his reading and if I don’t sit there and correct his reading he will put in words that are not even there and he has always used pictures when he was younger we were told he wasn’t understanding what he was reading so they spent time trying to getting to understand what he was reading the problem was he wasn’t reading therefore when he put in the words that he chose to put in in place of the words that were there it didn’t make sense therefore he didn’t remember it or understand it and doesn’t want people to correct him he needs to read one on one with teachers but they don’t do that in highschool.

    • If your son will work with YOU I highly recommend Michael Maloney’s “Teach Your Child to Read Well” series, starting at the beginning to teach him to decode.

      Go to to get information. We have taught 16 year olds who couldn’t read at all with this program, and we frequently use this and other tools to teach dyslexic students of all ages.

  6. Theresa Gibson says:

    I taught my son who has autism, ID, and vision problems to read using Maloney method / Teach your child to read in 100 Easy Lessons (Englemann) starting at age 17. It would have been better if I had found it sooner, but not because it doesn’t work! It would have worked 13 years sooner!! It will also teach you how to teach everything else!

    • Theresa that is great! That has been our experience with this program at well. VERY well designed and thoughtful about how to sequence the instruction. And the use of frequency to determine whether a learner is ready to take on new information is excellent!

  7. Andreia Simon says:

    Thank you for this post, and for all of your posts. I could have written this one myself – though not as eloquently! I was 12 years into my teaching career (1st Grade Teacher, then Interventionist) before I finally found the Simple View of Reading, Scarborough’s Rope, and the Four Part Processing Model. It was in a certification program based on the science of reading (who knew?!) and it turned my world upside down. Each of the interactions you describe happened with my students as well. If only I could turn back the hands of time! I’m so appreciative of voices like yours these days. You remind me that there are many folks out there who are willing to change, like I did, because our students are depending on us. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    • righttoreadproject_5dose6 says:

      Thanks so much for your kind words! It sounds like our journeys have been remarkably parallel

  8. Richard says:

    I have been fortunate in that i got VERY involved when my daughter Caitlin was having stomach aches Monday through Friday afternoon. Since he had always LOVED school prior to that it was clear that reading was the issue. We got “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons” by Englemann. The stomach aches went away and she became a skilled reader. While much of the focus of the Decoding Dyslexia efforts have focused on OG, I believe that it would be wise to use the Maloney Method and the various SRA reading programs. They are highly effective, and in the hands of a skilled instructor are rapid paths to more successful reading outcomes!

  9. Amber Naegle says:

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    [xxx] and now my dog ​​follows everything I ask.
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  10. Kristen Koeller says:

    Right to Read’s gift is giving voice to our shared experiences teaching reading. I will be sharing this article with a colleague who pushes in to a Kinergarten class with decodable books. Those students say they don’t want to read with her because “those books are too hard.”

  11. Shannon says:

    I have experienced this with my students first hand. As an intervention teacher, I am required to use a certain program with leveled readers – only problem is some of the words are not decodable, and the students rely on the pictures to “read” the word instead of truly reading it. Once I figured that out I started hiding the picture page and make them try to read the words. I’ve seen students memorized and use the pictures over and over.

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