Getting children reading

2008-06-04 00:00

Any structure that is built on shaky foundations is doomed, and so it is with learning to read. Children who fall behind in reading in the early years at school usually stay poor readers in any language, and this affects their subsequent academic performance in all subjects.

Alois Nzembe (The Witness, April 10) makes a crucial point when he argues that the widespread poor reading skills of South African school children stem from “the way reading is introduced at the foundation phase of education”. Nzembe suggests various activities to prepare children for reading. This maturational, “reading readiness”, approach is now outdated.

An alternative developmental approach recognises that children start interacting, to different degrees, with text from very early in life. Rather than emphasising waiting for children to mature so that they can read, we now focus on providing opportunities for children to interact with people and with print so as to enhance their potential for literacy learning. This perspective leads to different conclusions about what is important in reading instruction.

Let me suggest five ways in which we can ensure that our children get a good grounding in reading. None of these ideas are “rocket science”, but there is substantial research which predicts that these practices do make a difference.

Firstly, we should teach children how to read in a language that they already speak and understand well (usually the mother tongue). This way they will have maximum language resources to draw on as they struggle to figure out what reading is about. Evidence is that once we are independent readers, we easily transfer this ability to read to other languages. When children are taught in their home language they can also more easily communicate their own ideas and more easily build their general knowledge, both of which are important in the process of learning to read. Many parents insist that early schooling should be in English, even when it is not the children’s mother tongue. In the process they actually make it more difficult for their children to become skilled readers.

Secondly, we should make meaning central to reading instruction and we should teach comprehension strategies explicitly. My research in schools around Pietermaritzburg shows that the most common approach to teaching reading puts a very strong focus on teaching letters and sounds, individual words and simple (most often unconnected) sentences. Very little emphasis is placed on teaching strategies for comprehension of connected texts. This is a huge problem because children come to see literacy as about making sounds and words, not about making meaning in different ways in different situations. This is not to say that there is no place for instruction in phonics or word-recognition, but it should be done in the context of reading for meaning, and should not be the sole reading instruction children get.

Thirdly, reading aloud to children should be a daily part of literacy instruction. In spite of the policies, my research shows that in many classrooms this is a rare occurrence. Reading aloud to children models good reading, it helps them to associate reading with pleasure, it builds vocabulary and world knowledge, and it offers a chance to talk about the meaning of what has been read. This is particularly important for those children who do not have the privilege of book-rich homes, and I think it should be a non-negotiable responsibility of at least all primary school teachers.

In addition, children need daily opportunities to read both in and out of their classrooms. As with all skills, reading improves with regular practice. While school libraries are important, it is even more important for emergent readers to have a range of material to read in their classrooms and for real texts to be used in literacy instruction. All primary classrooms should have reading material available for guided and independent reading and classroom schedules should allocate sufficient time for these activities. In addition, all foundation phase children should read aloud on a daily basis, so that they develop fluency and sufficient reading speed to aid comprehension.

Finally, we should teach teachers to teach children to read. As crazy as it may seem, many foundation phase teachers have not been formally taught how to do this. Thus, there is a strong need for continuing professional development for teachers, as well as for good initial teacher training in teaching reading and writing. This should not be restricted to foundation phase teachers. All teachers have a responsibility to help children develop reading and writing skills, and so all teachers need training in how to do this in the context of their specialised subject areas.

All these suggestions talk to the realities in a huge number of schools in the country. All these suggestions are supported by policies of the Education Department. The trick is going to be to ensure that the policies are translated into practice, sooner rather than later.

• Clare Verbeek is a lecturer in the School of Education and Development at the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She has been researching the teaching of early literacy for a number of years.

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