Tag Archives: learning to read

Drawing is a writing skill

writing-drawingLiteracy skills in the UK have improved over the last few years, but writing skills have not improved at the same rate.

There is also a divergence between boys and girls – girls doing markedly better than boys when it comes to writing. It goes without saying that poor writing skills are a major hinderance for individuals in modern society, leading to poor life chances and outcomes.

I’ve come to think that it possible that the missing element in the teaching of writing is art and drawing – the teaching and practice of which has been sliding off he curriculum in recent years.

Reading is not the same as writing. The author of a novel, newspaper article or financial report, builds a scaffold upon which the reader overlays images from their experience.

The scaffold is constructed by an experienced practitioner – the writer.

Great writers receive acclaim because they build strong scaffolds for readers to build on.

If the reader does not have the prerequisite experience, then a good writer explains, clarifies and enthuses, filling in the reader’s missing knowledge.

Writing is the transmission of visualised thought.

All writing comes from thought. All thought is visualisation. Writing is an advanced form of creating images from visualised thought. Words are advanced forms of pictograms. Letters are advanced forms of marks made on the walls of caves.

Reducing time for drawing, art and visual interpretation in the curriculum, leaves children without the visualisation skills needed to “dream up” what they are being asked to write.

Visualisation skills are immediately transferable to all other subjects as well as being the foundation of self-confidence and ambition in life.

castle-3Children in school are in the process of becoming experienced practitioners of writing. Some, however, are pure visual thinkers – others think in dance movement or mathematical equations – words are not the natural medium of choice for all children.

Almost every child comes to school with the ability to hold a pencil in their hand and make some sort of image. If not, they usually have a cultural or family background which is not probably supportive of education anyway. Books and drawing materials may not have figured in the early lives of those children so they don’t have the experience.

It is a joy to watch young children given a piece of paper and a pencil. With little direction they are off, creating worlds – transmitting their visualisations – writing with pictures!

Very often children’s drawings turn into stories, with added characters, scenery and situations – they are putting their visualisations onto paper, rehearsing the story they might go on to write as text.

As children get older, drawing becomes confused with “Art”. Children say they cannot draw, comparing themselves with famous adult artists. Quite often children are told by teachers that they can’t draw – the teacher, willingly admitting that they can’t draw either, does not take drawing seriously.

dino-1Drawing is a skill that can be learned – exactly the same way that the alphabet is learned and used to create words. Drawing has it’s own alphabet of shapes that can be combined to make images. Art is something that builds upon those skills. Drawing and Art are not the same.

Drawing is like writing. A little practice every day, learning shapes – like we learned letter shapes – will improve drawing skills. A little practice every day – putting those shapes together, the same way that in literacy children learn to put words together – will reap rewards and provide children with a parallel method of transmitting their visualised thoughts.

In real life, most text is accompanied by pictures. Newspapers, magazines, websites are all heavily illustrated. Often an article is built around a great picture. Very few people read blocks of text, that are unaccompanied by pictures, in their day to day lives.

It takes time to learn how to read a novel from beginning to end – to learn how to clothe that enormous scaffold. Children learn to read novels with training books – books with pictures. The number of pictures reduce as they get older and build their reading skills and stamina.

Similarly, children need to draw pictures to help them organise their visualisation skills to help them become confident writers.

Over the years, they will need to draw fewer images as they learn to rely on the pictures in their head.

“A picture speaks a thousand words,” as the saying goes.

You can start learning to draw with my free YouTube video course – Everyone can draw  – my book is also available at Amazon

What is reading for?

this-wayCurrently, there is a lively debate about how children should learn to read. It seems to me that both sides of the debate share the same concern – they all agree that children should become fluent readers, able to both read and understand the written word.

To me, the debate has come about through the misinterpretation of the word read.

Those who teach the nuts and bolts of reading are rightly focussed on the decoding of words. This is the ground work of reading. At this stage the word reading is defined as decoding words.

Later, those children move on to those who teach them to become fluent readers, to gain experience and understanding of the meaning of both words, groups of words and the hidden meanings between the lines.

Fluency comes with practice. At this stage of building reading skills, the word reading is defined as understanding the meaning of words and the meaning of groups of words, generally referred to as text.

It seems to me that these two definitions of the same word are the cause of the debate. It’s easy to mistake confusion for criticism. Perceived criticism usually leads to negative thoughts that soon become entrenched ideas and dogma.

Learning to read is probably the hardest job anyone undertakes in their lives.

Thank heavens there are dedicated foundation and early years teachers who love their jobs and the children they teach, who lavish time and energy, hearing readers in lunch breaks, tweaking and refining their methods for each individual in their care. They do not get enough praise. So, thank you all.

And thank heavens for the dedicated remedial teachers who help those for whom the classroom hasn’t worked, who dedicate themselves to saving the ones who slip through the net.

In any system there will be those for whom the structure, designed for the majority, will to be not suitable. Humans are individuals – one size will never fit all.

These teachers probably get even less praise, as they do their crucial work in dark corners and cubby-holes around the school. Only they will ever know the effect they have on individual lives. So thank you too.

Thank heavens also, there are dedicated teachers who want to build on the decoding skills learned by the children who move on up in school. They enthuse children to read on their own, to thrill to stories, to engage with facts and learn to learn for themselves. Thank you also for your hard work and dedication.

There is a functional use for reading. We need to read road signs, bills, news, instructions, recipes, contracts etc.

We don’t need to read Shakespeare, Hello Magazine, fairy stories or jokes.

But we don’t give children books of recipes or instruction leaflets or tomes on contract law, because we know they are deadly boring. They are not going to enthuse children to read.

That’s why we give children stories that take them away to other worlds, on wild adventures, to make them laugh, cry and scream with fear. Stories connect one mind to another directly. Stories teach empathy, history, bravery, the meaning of love, sacrifice, greed, jealousy, friendship… the meaning of words.

Stories engage most children. Road signs, on the whole, do not.

Fluency requires practice.

A reader will not become a fluent reader without practice. It is the same when learning to play a violin or to kick a goal like Beckham. Practice means reading a lot, every day, just like a violinist practices every day, and the reason why Beckham could always be found practicing after everyone else had gone home.

The wonder of stories is that when children get bitten by a story, they do not to want to stop reading. They have to know what happens next.

And while they are finding out, they are practicing their reading skills… and they don’t even know it!

They are learning about structure. They are seeing that stories really do have a beginning, middle and end. They are seeing the words they’ve learned to decode in context. They are seeing the same words used in different ways, with different meanings, learning empathy, learning that others may interpret the same words in a completely different way. This comes with fluency.

Reading purely to decode is what machines do.

My copy of Adobe Acrobat asks me if it would like to decode words it recognises on an image. It does a remarkably good job – better than a ten year old, probably.

Machines decode for us more and more. Soon they will drive us, so we don’t need road signs anymore. They will sort out contracts and disputes for us. The barcode on the side of the ready meal will program the microwave to deliver a perfect meal every time, so we won’t even see the recipe.

Academic, legal and technical writing is done by and for academics, lawyers and technicians. We pay them to mediate and elucidate. We don’t need to learn to decode that sort of text.

So we are left with social media, an environment where you really need to understand the meaning of the millions of stories that flow through the ether, day in and day out.

What better grounding than to be able to sound out and decoded those weird txt spellings and have all that practice, reading stories about fairies, aliens, talking animals and evil monsters?

Why Phonics are useless on their own

power of booksThe older I get, the more I realise that there is never one simple easy answer. Duality or multiplicity is built into the fabric of life.

Yin/Yang, Left/Right, Relativity/Quantum theory. All systems work happily enough, but each needs the other to make sense of the whole.

So it is with learning to read.

The mechanistic approach to reading of phonics is great – breaking down the language into its composite parts to create building blocks.

I’m a great advocate of this axiomatic approach. Start with the very basic truth or fact about the subject that everyone can agree on, then build upon that foundation, step by step, block by block.

You may have read my book, Euclid, the man who invented geometry. Euclid is the classic, axiomatic approach to learning geometry. But geometry is boring, boring, boring if you never have the chance to see the angles being created, or to stab yourself with a compass and bleed on your exercise book or feel the exhilaration of drawing a perfect circle. There has to be fun and there has to be a reason to it all.

When it comes to reading, you can fill a child full of phonics, but you can’t make them read. Phonics won’t make them want to read. Phonics are mechanical, they have nothing to offer, no fun, no reason.

Phonics only make sense in conjunction with stories. Stories are what captivate a child’s imagination, not phonics.

Phonics are meaningless to a child unless they begin to see a connection between the mechanics and the prize. The prize is the story. Why else should they bother learning phonics?

There are no more magical words to a child than, “Shall I tell you a story?” Say them and you’ll have their immediate and rapt attention. It’s an extraordinary power. You don’t even have to be good at telling stories, just choose a good book, open it and off you go. Trust the author and the editor who put their life’s experience into getting the story just right, so you can be a hero to the children you read to.

This works with adults too. Try it!

For every minute spent on phonics an equal minute needs to be spent on story time, otherwise phonics don’t make sense. Phonics and grammar and structure and spelling only make sense when you know what it is that they all add up to… the prize, the story.