Tag Archives: Readers

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?

Ipad or Android for your school?

ipadnextappThere is no contest. The ipad provides the best apps, books, (there is a kindle reader for iPad so it is a kindle too) and the best operating system by far. When I hear schools discussing the choice staffrooms, the same argument comes up, “Well, iPads are so expensive, and we can get so many more android tablets for our money.”

So you can, and with them you buy so many more headaches down the line. Android is the new Windows. A loose operating system that is changed and mucked about with at the whim of Google and the manufacturers of the hardware. One Android tablet is not like another. Each machine has it’s own quirks. They all have different capabilities and idiosyncrasies, just like windows pcs.

An ipad is an iPad is an iPad. They just work, and Apple make sure the apps that go on them work too. As with all technology, both iPad and Android tablets will have their off moments and frustrations, but you will have far fewer moments and lesser frustrations with iPad.

When it comes to illustrated children’s ebooks, iPad is the only game in town. I don’t mean singing and dancing animated app books, I mean books where the text stays still on the page waiting to be read. You can’t learn to read when the text is dancing up and down and reading itself to you – that’s entertainment.
eBooks for children with pictures in the right place, with video and interactive elements for learning are only readily available on the iPad.

If you want to get on and do stuff, get an iPad. If you want to spend your time asking for help from IT support staff, get Android. If you want to save time and money down the line and have the best apps available to you, iPad is your choice every time.

It has always amazed me that those who don’t use Apple products wonder why Apple users are so fanatical about their support for Apple products. Those who use Apple products are the kind of people who try other systems and are always amazed that anyone would want to use anything else.

Want to improve writing standards? Let them read books!

You wouldn’t expect a child to make a movie if they had never watched TV or visited the cinema. You’d never expect a child to make something if they’d never seen the tools being used or had never encountered the raw materials before, so why, oh why do we expect children to be able to write when they don’t read and aren’t encouraged to by the primary Literacy Strategy?

In the last ten years or so, the Literacy Strategy, which has supposedly been raising literacy standards, has failed dismally. Standards rose slightly at the beginning, but you would expect that as teachers taught to the test. After that, nothing happened. Why? Because reading was not part of the Literacy Strategy.

Endless comprehension of selected texts – yes, but reading – no. A whole generation of primary teachers have been brought up with this nonsense. Surely they must be beginning to suspect that they were sold a pup?

A whole generation of children have been brought up not reading books for pleasure. Their teachers were not taught about children’s books or how to read them to class. At one Literacy Coordinator’s conference I went to, that was all about “talking”, I actually heard two teachers in conversation at my lunch table, discussing what an amazing idea it was to read stories aloud to children in class. They seemed baffled about where and when in the busy curriculum they would be able to fit in such a new concept and how they would do it!

Do you know, I’ve been to some schools where they ask me if I have any tips to help the children improve their writing. I looked around their bare, empty classrooms, where not one book was on display, and suggested they get the children to read books. They’d honestly not thought of that. If you don’t celebrate books and tell stories, how are children ever going to know about them and how are they ever going to know that they are important, if teachers aren’t bothered? Some teachers don’t read for pleasure themselves and are certainly unaware of the latest trends and bestsellers in children’s literature.

Writing is a difficult skill but we seem to think that if we throw enough phonemes and pronouns at it, somehow children will learn to write amazing, imaginative stories.

Writing comes from three sources: Firstly experience – how can children write about stuff if they haven’t experienced anything in their lives, if risk assessments stop museum visits and weekends away? Secondly, writing comes from seeing it being done, and that means reading books – whole books- long books with beginnings and middles and satisfying ends, that grip the child’s imagination, making them laugh and cry and want to seek out more – to find out what lies over the horizon. And thirdly, there is grammar and style. This can and should be taught, Grammar is important, it’s how we make sense of writing, but it is not how we write. Grammar is merely a tool, Experience and reading are the raw materials.

I wrote a story for Barrington Stoke, who publish for Dyslexics. The manuscript of Craig Mnure was sent out to a large test group and came back covered with suggestions for making the text easier to read. Interestingly, the further into the book, the fewer the comments – this was because the children “got my voice” after a while. The voice takes over from the difficulties of reading. The voice carries the story along, gripping the reader who, only caring about the story, is not aware that they are also working on their reading skills. Who cares about comprehension and split infinitives – they want to know what happens. The skill comes as a by-product of the enjoyment. Yes, learning really can be fun – just read a good book!

When you read and engage with a book, you see the writing being done, like an apprentice at his master’s elbow, learning the skills of the trade. You see how the writer puts the words and ideas together, and by reading the whole story, by a process of osmosis, the writing skills improve and the imagination begins to grow as writers present new horizons for children to aim for.

Maybe reading for pleasure sounds like too much fun? It can’t be educational if you are having fun! Surely literacy must have great dollops of misery to make it stick?

We take reading for granted these days. It’s something that is done to you and your supposed to be able to do it by the end of year six, when reading finishes and secondary education begins.
But reading is an incredibly complex skill and like all skills, it needs to be worked on to improve, and it needs to be kept up to maintain the skill level you are at. You will never improve your writing unless you read and see how it is done by others. You need to read good and bad writing to become a discerning reader and competent writer.

I visit many primary schools. There is something about the schools that put a great emphasis on reading – an atmosphere the moment you walk over the threshold. They tend to be run by old-fashioned head teachers, (not managers, but teachers), who tell me that they have to explain the idea of reading for pleasure to new, young teachers and let them know that reading for pleasure is their school’s priority. It doesn’t matter where the school is or what kind of catchment area it has, the emphasis on reading infuses the school, the curriculum and the results with excitement, success and achievement.

Children who are proficient readers become self-starters, confident in their ability to read, research and find out on their own.

It is not a teacher’s job to cram stuff into children. Teacher’s are there to open children’s eyes and raise their sights, to facilitate the quest for knowledge, to create young people who can stand on their own two legs and and find things out for themselves. This is achieved by teaching the one and only really necessary skill – READING – every other school discipline comes seconadary to reading, most are unteachable without the ability to read.

If you want to raise your children’s writing standards, let them read books – hundreds of them. Blow the school budget, build a library, make it the heart of the school, have a branch library in every class room.

Put books and reading for pleasure first, stand back and watch your children grow and blossom like fireworks going off. I’ve seen it happen in many schools, then the head leaves and the grey miasma of Literacy descends once again as the vision leaves the building.

Want to improve your children’s writing standards? Let them read books!