How should we teach reading?
A few months ago I posted a piece in which Roy Blatchford (founder of The National Education Trust) outlined his manifesto for ensuring that every child gets at least a C grade in English. But, reading is complex.
So how exactly should we teach children to read? This vexing question is utmost in many teachers’ minds and is tangled up in three separate issues:
1. Decoding – the process of turning symbols into sounds – generally taught using synthetic phonics
2. Understanding – actually comprehending what’s been read after it’s been decoded
3. Enjoyment – it’s World Book Day tomorrow and getting kids to enjoy reading is something close to every English teacher’s heart. Whatever else we do it’s really bloody important not to put students off reading.
This week I have mostly been reading The Knowledge Deficit by ED Hirsch. This is, apparently the text upon which Gove has built his understanding of how education should work and as such I approached it with a certain amount of trepidation. It’s actually much more plausible than I was expecting. In it Hirsch argues that the reason attempts to raise the standards of reading in American schools has failed is because they’ve focused on teaching transferable reading skills rather than on giving students the background knowledge necessary to understand a wide range of texts.
Now, this comes as something of a blow. Particularly in light of the fact that at my school we have recently relaunched the Reading Strategies as a way of boosting students’ ability to comprehend what they’re reading. Is this possibly a huge waste of time?
One of the points Hirsch makes which I found especially interesting is the way he equates reading with listening and speaking with writing. He says,”If children are brought to speak and understand speech well in the early years, their reading future is bright.” He suggests that “In the classroom, the teacher can and should ask children frequently to make formal prepared and unprepared presentations to the class.” Now, that’s interesting. Could getting students to focus on speaking & listening be the key to improving their reading ability?
The other string to Hirsch’s bow is that we need to teach students knowledge. It wasn’t all that long ago that I had a heart-felt (but knee-jerk) opposition to this premise, but Hirsch explains that much of our thinking about education and children’s development stems from Romanticism. The Romantics believed that education should be ‘natural’ and that studnets should be allowed to ‘grow’. These words have since become synonymous with ‘good’. The problem comes from the belief that children will become better at say, reading, if they are allowed to develop naturally. After all, they learn to speak without much interference, don’t they? Well, yest they do. But as EB points out, reading is a deeply unnatural thing to do; there is very little chance that a child will learn to read without help.
Here’s an example of how a lack of knowledge can make your ability to decode meaningless:
A manifold, contained in an intuition which I call mine, is represented, by means of the synthesis of the understanding, as belonging to the necessary unity of self-consciousness; and this is effected by means of the category.
What is the main idea of this passage?
- Without a manifold, one cannot call an intuition ‘mine.’
- Intuition must precede understanding
- Intuition must occur through a category.
- Self-consciousness is necessary to understanding
Comprehension depends on constructing a mental model that makes the elements fall into place and, equally important, enables the listener or reader to supply essential information that is not explicitly stated. In language use, there is always a great deal that is left unsaid and must be inferred. This means that communication depends on both sides, writer and reader, sharing a basis of unspoken knowledge. This large dimension of tacit knowledge is precisely what is not being taught adequately in our schools.Hirsch 2009
So back to my list of what we need to teach:
1. Decoding. We’ve become pretty good at this (or at least, primary teachers have.) As long as kids pick this up in Year 1 or 2, they’ll be fine. Problems arise if they arrive a secondary school without being able to do this with much facility as most of us secondary trained English teachers lack the training or time to do much about it.
2. Understanding. Hirsch’s claims that “There is every scientific reason to predict that an intensive and well-focused effort to enhance language and knowledge … will not only raise reading achievement for all students, it will help to narrow the gap between social groups.” Bold words. And when you consider that we need to understand at least 90% of the vocabulary in a text beofre you can process it, let alone enjoy it then maybe expanding students’ background knowledge doesn’t seem so daft. I’m inclined to give it a go, especially as it fits snugly with Daniel Willingham’s views in Why Don’t Students Like School?
And just because these ideas can be tarred with a right wing brush doesn’t mean that they have to be dull or badly taught. As Phil Beadle says, students “deserve you to be brilliant”. And teaching reading maybe requires more brilliance than anything else.
3. Enjoyment. The idea of more speaking & listening as the solution to improving reading and writing certainly sounds fun. But will it give students a love of literature? This is something that English teachers still need to pour their hearts and souls into, and we need to make sure that we’re exposing to our students to as broad a range of wonderful books as we can in the hope that maybe, just maybe, they’ll like one of them.