Now, what’s reading all about…?

I usually write about ‘professional’ issues rather than curriculum matters but I was recently given a set of books about English to review that made me reflect on issues around ‘professional autonomy’ and how different that once was.

As a primary teacher who did an MA in ‘English in Education’ at London University’s Institute for Education nearly thirty years ago, I read these booklets with some interest. They reminded me of the halcyon days when I felt truly inspired to teach. I would turn up for two hours twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, over two years – each time absolutely knackered from a full day’s teaching in a tough Hackney classroom – but within minutes, find myself drinking at a fountain of knowledge poured by the likes of Harold Rosen, Margaret Meek (Spencer), Tony Burgess and Jane Miller.

These books remind me of those sessions. I’m going to summarise them – all too crudely. But here’s the second one on Reading:

Successful entry into literacy depends on existing competence in spoken language. Beginning readers, to be successful, must employ all the resources of their memory and their meaning-making ability to generalise from the evidence of the text in front of them.

Like the way we pick up language, much of a beginning reader’s learning takes place unconsciously. However, the teacher’s role in appropriately pitched conscious instruction is vital.

Pleasure in reading is an essential prerequisite to success. This principle applies at all levels of encounters with the written word, from initial ‘word-recognition’ activities up to full-scale comprehension of extended text.

Learning to read is learning to infer and construct meaning. In the search for meaning, readers are trying to employ a formidable panoply of strategies at different points in their encounters with texts – and in talking about texts, this is not just books but could be anything from an advert on a billboard to a sign on the way to school. Many, perhaps even the majority of these strategies operate fast and automatically, below the level of conscious awareness.

The job of the teacher (and of the parent, in a less specialised, less expert but no less important way) is to create the conditions in which the young child’s reading strategies can operate unhindered and to greatest effect.

These strategies include things like:

  • recognizing and retaining whole words, to which children have been introduced by the teacher;
  • linking semantic and syntactic patterns of spoken language, of which most children already have substantial experience;
  • recognising the links between writing and sounds.

Successful teaching of reading does not depend on allegiance to a particular method, but on an overall understanding of what it is that children do when encountering a text. Too often, debates about the teaching of reading have been reduced to arguments about methods. ‘Which method should I use? “Look and say”? Phonics? If so, which kind of phonics?’

To seek a fail-safe single method is to seek the wrong thing. At one particular moment in one particular child’s early experience of reading, any one of these methods – or, more likely, a combination of them – might work. The most important piece of intellectual equipment that a teacher needs is not a method, but an understanding of the processes involved in becoming a reader.

Beginning readers need full access to a wide range of books, crucially including books that have been composed using the natural patterns, usages and rhythms of English.

These include:

  • books that the teacher reads aloud to the class;
  • big books where the children can follow the words as the teacher reads;
  • books that, once the child has heard and seen being read aloud by the teacher, he or she can read in a group or alone, repeating the experience more independently;
  • books accompanied by a CD or DVD so that the child can hear an experienced reader giving voice to the marks on the page;
  • books which go home to be read before bedtime or whenever there is a quarter of an hour to spare.

The support of parents and other experienced readers at home is of enormous importance in the development of successful young readers.

About one in six children in the 3-to-7 age-group is a learner of English as an additional language. EAL learners are engaged in the complex process of sorting differences and recognising equivalences between their first and additional language(s). Appropriate books in the first language and in bilingual editions should be provided, so that the writing systems of English and the other language(s) can be compared.

Current government policy and statutory requirements in the area of early reading are based on a simplistic view of the reading process, in which only one method – synthetic phonics – is recognised as being effective in the teaching of early reading. This simplistic understanding fails to do justice to the diversity of strategies that young children use to become successful readers.

John Richmond’s English, Language and Literacy 3 to 19: Reading 3 to 7 proposes an better balanced understanding of the processes of early reading at the Early Years Foundation Stage and at Key Stage 1 than that represented by the new National Curriculum for English. It is available from the United Kingdom Literacy Association at http://www.ukla.org/publications/shop/, price £12 (£11 to UKLA members).    

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a talk. His book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

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