What are you going to read today? Do we really need a dedicated day to celebrate reading? Why don’t we have a World Maths Day or a World Writing Day? Where’s World Music Day? Where’s World Cooking Day or World Newspaper Day? In the future is there going to be a World Kindle Day or a World Blog Day?
As it happens, some of these days do exist. Yesterday, for instance, was World Maths Day – a fact that actually passed us by. October 1st is World Music Day and later in that month there is a Word Food Day (16th October). Put these dates in your diaries.
Books open minds and open worlds that aren’t necessarily available to us in our immediate environments. Books can transform our thoughts, excite our imagination, inspire us, challenge us, lift our spirits and enlighten us. Books and reading can inform us, enable us, comfort us and engage us. Of course we should have a dedicated day of celebration for the amazing gift of being able to read.
Teaching a child to read is one of the most rewarding experiences in life. Seeing a child’s gradual realisation that all these peculiar letter combinations and collected words link together to make sense is so exciting. Watching a child looking at a picture and identifying the corresponding words below is mesmerising. Seeing a child creating their own imaginary story when opening a book for the first time, unable to read the text but wanting to mimic reading because they know that’s what you should do with a book, is delightful. Listening to a child decoding, decrypting, inferring, deciphering, guessing new words in the context of what they have already read and learned is fascinating.
Every day throughout the world, children are making breakthroughs that are no less significant than the decrypting of the German secrets in World War Two by the Enigma Machine at Bletchley Park. They gradually get it, and work out a way to identify how all of these words and letters to make sense, and it really is a life-giving skill.
As primary school teachers, we have had the honour and the enchantment of being able to experience a child learning to read more often than most, and it never loses its magic. This is why we are so passionate about learning to read and the mechanisms that are required to engage a child in the enjoyment of reading.
It’s also why we are so against a single means of learning to read such as the synthetic phonics system advocated by our current government. It stultifies a child’s instinctive mechanisms for learning and reduces reading to a mere fraction of the entire purpose of learning to read.
When a child emerges from the womb it automatically, instinctually cries. As the umbilical cord is cut, it also instinctively wants sustenance. As it opens its eyes for the first time, it instinctively looks around, absorbing the multiplicity of sights, learning relatively quickly that the larger version of themselves is going to provide them with food and comfort them when they are distressed. They cry more when they learn that this action creates the response that they need. As their senses mature, day by day, they capture more of the world – again using their eyes and their ears to begin to understand their surroundings. Gradually, the baby deciphers, decodes and predicts. They make patterns and connections. They naturally link what they see to what they hear, and vice versa. They learn that if they touch a brightly coloured toy, it will make a certain sound or have a particular feel.
These are skills that children develop from birth, and it’s accepted by all that a child needs a range of stimuli in order to learn and flourish. It is precisely these skills that have been developed through their first months and years of life that should be employed when learning to read, and not just one. To disengage a child’s instinct to learn through looking is preposterous. To prevent a child from predicting and guessing words and purely encourage them to break words into their individual and stark components is madness, if this is the only mechanism employed in the teaching of reading. It’s even more bizarre when you appreciate that so many of our words are not phonetically constructed.
Take a look at the 100 high frequency words and look at how many either use a more complex form of phonetic make-up or are one of the many words that don’t comply with phonetic structures at all.
Words like “said” “people” “what” “when” “their” are difficult words and are usually learned through the use of other mechanisms for learning rather than phonetic breakdown.
The word “said” is worth an essay in itself. Children don’t learn this word phonetically. They read it because they learn the sight of the word, not its phonetic breakdown. They learn to read the word through its repetition within the book. It takes time for their brains to transfer the knowledge of what this word looks like to using it in their own writing, which is why they tend to use the phonetic version of “sed” in writing. Eventually, and with encouragement, the connection is made.
For us though, the real issue with synthetic phonics is the deliberation of the text which can make a book disturbingly tedious, and we really don’t want our children to be bored by reading before they’ve even had the opportunity to read a “real” book. Whilst we recognise that there are authors who are trying their best to create exciting and engaging phonetically structured story books for children, particularly at this age, it’s the content of the story that’s important for the child.
As adults, we use the word “turn-pager” for a book that we can’t put down. Isn’t that what we want for our children too? Don’t we want our children to be excited and stimulated by books before they can read? Don’t we want this excitement and enthusiasm to generate a desire to learn to read for themselves? Take a look at a child absorbed in the imagination and anticipation of something like “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak or Julia Donaldson’s “The Gruffalo”. Sit a child down and watch them as they eagerly anticipate the next problem on the next page as the family traipse along their path in “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” by Michael Rosen. It’s wonderful!
Observe a group of children all getting nervous together as they await the return of Mother in “Owl Babies” by Martin Waddell. Look how children, who don’t necessarily have all the reading skills in place, pick up these books after they’ve had them read to them, and listen to their interpretation and mimicry when re-telling the story in their own way. It’s brilliant!
This is what we want from books. This is why we learn to read. Of course we need phonetic knowledge in order to read. We also need it to enjoy reading, so that we aren’t spending time stumbling around with sounds to the detriment of the meaning of the text but so much of what we read is determined by our ability to use a range of tools. We often don’t read every word on a page. We gather meaning from a sentence as a whole rather than every individual word. There’s evidence that we certainly don’t read every letter or phoneme as we progress with reading. Onset and rime are vital, which is why many can read that familiar passage of “If you can raed this” below.
“I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mind! Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae.
The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm.
Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? Yaeh, and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!”
3Di Associates are completely committed to the teaching and learning of reading. It’s been a significant focal point of our careers. For us personally, the employment of all of the intelligences in reading and writing is life-giving. The opportunities that literacy gives to be creative and to appreciate the creativity of others, is an amazing, spectacular gift. Without books, without reading, life would be quite unbearable for us.
The love of reading and the love of books is a gift for all, and we should have a dedicated day where we consider the importance of reading in our lives; adults and children alike, and should also commit ourselves to supporting others to engage and enjoy this life-giving skill.