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Running the Marathon

Learning to read is a lot like training to run a marathon. Let me explain…

When someone is new to running there is a lot that goes into preparing your body for a long-distance run. Proper breathing techniques, stride, foot placement, body posture, and pace are just a few of the crucial components that a runner must master before running for a long distance to avoid injury and overexertion. Even with all the proper techniques, a runner will build on their distance over time. Maybe the first week or so their goal is a quarter mile without stopping, then once that feels comfortable, they will work up to half a mile and so on. Ultimately, the runner-in-training will be ready for a 5K in no time because they’ve met their body where it was at and conditioned it over time to build endurance.

We would never expect a new runner to just jump right in and run a 5K and anticipate mastery, right!? Sure, the runner may start out strong and use all their techniques the way they were taught, but by mile 2 they will be struggling. Their pace will be thrown off, their stride will look less efficient, and by the end they will probably be so overexerted that they will say, “I am never doing that again!” Now you’ve taken someone with all the skills and training and essentially tarnished their ability to meet their goal of running a full marathon. Why? BECAUSE WE DIDN’T LET THEM MEET THEIR BODY WHERE IT WAS AT!

How does this relate to reading? Simple.

This is exactly what we are doing to young readers today. Our fantastic teachers are teaching all the skills students need to be effective readers: phonics, decoding, blending, sight words, vocabulary, and comprehension. Our children are acquiring these skills in a way that is developmentally appropriate for their current level of brain processing, which is why Kindergarten is usually the biggest push for foundational literacy skills. BUT… when story time rolls around, we are reading 1,500+ word picture books and asking students to use their skills to comprehend and analyze the story. (Cue your runner jumping right into that 5K analogy.) How can we reasonably expect our Kindergarteners to fully engage in a 1,500+ word picture book when their cognitive ability only lends itself to about 450 words at a time? Simply put, the picture book you’re spending 15 minutes of instructional time to read to your class is only impactful the first 5 minutes of instruction. Why? Because that is what a typical 5/6-year-old is developmentally capable of. Their brain is only equipped to comprehend and retain 5-6 minutes in a given amount of time.

**Want to learn more about where I got this number from? Check out my previous blog titled, “What Do the Numbers Say?

How can we effectively build analytic readers when we are expecting them to dive into a text that they can only realistically navigate one-third of? We can’t. If you read 1,500+ words in one sitting and then proceed to ask your young readers comprehension questions, chances are they can tell you all about the beginning and maybe part of the climax, but they won’t be able to developmentally synthesize the story beginning-middle-to-end.

It wasn’t until my own children were in Preschool and Kindergarten, in combination with my experiences as an RtI Intervention Teacher, that I really saw the disconnect. There’s no doubt literacy is the number one concern amongst elementary schools throughout the country. Much of this concern has been heightened post-covid and having nearly two years of at-home learning, but the reality is that early literacy has always been a pain point in education.

But why!? We are teaching all the research-based skills students need to be successful. Where’s the disconnect?

My professional opinion is that we are running the marathon before we’ve built up our endurance. Students can use their reading skills in isolation and in small developmentally appropriate settings, but they are not really fully interacting with a story’s plot until they are much older and are cognitively capable.

What does this mean?

It means our readers aren’t actually practicing analytic reading until about second grade, which is when their brain is ready to process longer text to its entirety. The real concern is how we are building on (and encouraging) those foundational analytic skills leading up to the second grade. If we continue to read 1,500+ word picture books to our Kindergarten/First Graders, we really aren’t. We are quite literally throwing our little runners into a marathon in second grade, which is a lot of the reason why we notice a shift in reader enjoyment by the age of 7 or 8.

Instead, we should be working up to a 5K before we even think about those daunting marathons. Let’s meet students where they are developmentally at.

How would this look in the classroom?

Choose books that are shorter in length (500 words is ideal), but still has a developed character and plot. Allow the opportunity for young readers to synthesize text from the beginning to the end in a way that works for their current level of information processing. If readers can fully engage with a developmentally appropriate text, we are not only building on their foundational reading skills, but we are also building on their reading endurance and their enjoyment of reading.

My theory is that the foundational skills we teach explicitly in the early elementary years are highly effective but aren’t APPLYING these skills in a way that is developmentally appropriate. I propose we rethink our story time (or bedtime) book selections and choose text that is shorter in length but still written with a fully developed plot. We conclude our reading with comprehension-based questions that ignite the analytic thinkers we are building, but now we are doing it with a text they can reasonably comprehend and retain in a single sitting. I think what we will find is that our students are ultimately more confident, effective, and passionate about their reading by the time they reach second grade.

If we can celebrate the 5K before we jump into the marathon, we will have a lot more avid runners. (and readers! 😉)

Believe in the magic of reading.


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