Currently, 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?