I was honored to be asked to judge a contest for high school students who wish to become teachers. They worked for weeks to produce a storybook suitable for 3- and 4-year-olds, and then presented the story as a read-aloud experience for the judges. The students were sparklingly nice, bright, eager and caring. The eventual winner was a fantastic product which will go on to compete on the national level. But most of the entries indicated that most of the students have apparently been mistaught in reading themselves, and misled as to the purpose of kiddie lit. And yet — ouch! — these are the ones who are going to be teaching our kids in a few years.

There was no rhyming, no rhythm, no poetry, no alliteration. There was only one word choice that was delightful (“moping” as a verb). The storylines were unimaginative and politicized: they were all about bullying or friendship or just going through the day in chronological order. The students gave me little or no eye contact as they read their stories. They read them in a monotone. Only one of those I judged was error-free in grammar, spelling and punctuation. Not a single entry that I saw showed any grasp of The Big Five in preschool reading goals, and indeed, the scoring rubric didn’t even mention them:

  1. Phonemic awareness – the ability to hear and remember the order of the sounds that the letters make in words.


  1. Phonics – the ability to match the sounds the letters make to the written symbols on a page, and to decode them as words, quickly and accurately.


  1. Comprehension – the ability to understand and remember the concepts read.


  1. Vocabulary – the English language has more than 750,000 words, yet many people have a working vocabulary of just a couple of thousand words. The bigger your vocabulary, the easier it is for you to read and understand, and the farther you’ll go in life, because a big vocabulary is the No. 1 correlate of success in life – more tied to success than having rich parents, a big-spending school, experienced teachers, etc.


  1. Fluency – the quick, efficient and accurate decoding of words, read rapidly and with expression with little conscious attention to the task, and high automaticity.


All of these students have a high potential to be great teachers. They seemed to be enthusiastic about teaching, and very caring about children.

How I wish the leaders of Nebraska’s teacher education departments in our colleges and universities could have observed these presentations. How I wish they would understand that if you don’t teach the teachers right, there’s zero chance that the children they influence, on down the road, are going to learn to read well.

This was just another warning to moms and dads not to put off teaching your own child to read and expect the teacher to be able to do it. Parents, you need to spend at least a half-hour a day with your 3- and 4-year-old, reading side-by-side from library books. Have fun exaggerating the dialogue and acting out the stories.  Remark on unusual words. Pronounce them and think of words that rhyme with them. Ask questions on how the story might have ended differently.

Then even if your child never gets a teacher with good skills in reading instruction, it won’t matter as much, because you were able to deliver the priceless gift of reading to your child outside of the school walls.