What might be the greatest gift you could give a child this Christmas? The latest electronic gadget? A trip to a pantomime? The top selling “Furby”? Or a really brilliant book?
How do we – parents and teachers – enable children to become confident, independent readers who are hooked on books?
I taught myself to read, assisted by a Christmas present of 1968 – Dr. Seuss’s ABC. I have vivid memories of slowly and repetitively going through the book day after day until I could finally recite the book without looking at the words on the page.
“Big A, little a, what begins with A? Aunt Annie’s alligator. A……a……..A.”
“Big Z, little z, what begins with Z? I do. I am a Zizzer-Zazzer-Zuzz as you can plainly see.”
Why, Mr Gove would be proud of me! Learning to read with a phonics based book, using imaginary words that wouldn’t be out of place in his ridiculous SPAG test for six year olds.
However, this is only half the story. Although this particular book was phonics based it also had quirky characters that appealed to this particular two year old. It had illustrations that triggered thoughts and imagination. It had repetition of onsets and rimes*. The words created patterns that were followed and learned. It had colour. It had flow.
It was weird!
I may well have used phonics to help me to read this particular book but those other reading and meaning cues were as important as the structure of individual words and the sounds of individual letters.
Also, it wasn’t the only book in my house, and, like many of my generation, I learned to read using the many Ladybird story books that I was fortunate enough to own. I “read” Cinderella before I could read – by using the illustrations that appeared on every alternate page. I can still see Cinderella looking every inch a princess in her shimmering blue gown! I “read” through listening to others read, following the print before I knew which sound related to which word. The whole notion of the purpose of reading was building up in my mind long before I tackled Dr. Seuss with his eccentric characters and stilted phonetic text.
Interestingly for me, some forty plus years later I had the delight of watching another blonde two year old learning to enjoy reading, mirroring my own journey in so many ways.
Like me, this young girl didn’t talk very much and didn’t begin to speak as early as expected. The vivacity and chattiness of her older sibling meant that she probably found it difficult to get a word in edgeways even if she’d wanted to. However, she picked up books, sat silently and absorbed stories from a very young age – long before she could demonstrate her understanding through speaking about the text, or indeed reading.
Like me, she jumped a developmental stage in speaking. Her first words were rarely single entities. They emerged connected. Full sentences came quickly and soon she was able to sit with a book and “recite” her own story to accompany the text. Her love of stories and books was evident, and her imagination allowed her to wander through a book in her own mind, using the illustrations to guide her along her way.
And then, like me, she started school – already devouring books, already eager to learn, already using the whole range of reading cues that a good primary school practitioner would advocate – graphic, symantic, syntactic and phonic.
In 1971, when I started school, I’d been reading for a couple of years. The Plowden Report and its aim for child-centred learning based on individual needs and personalised learning was apparently ignored by the infant school that I attended: I was actually discouraged from reading in school until my peers ‘caught up’. It then took me many years to become remotivated to read for pleasure after such a setback.
Move on forty years, and now this other little girl who loved books also started school. By this time the Plowden Report had been consigned to history. Standardised means of teaching children to read prevailed in her school and ‘synthetic phonics’ was the prescribed route for learning how to read, which is where the story enters the present day.
A few weeks ago, I sat with this child who wanted to share some of her books with me. Excitedly, she wanted to demonstrate her reading ability to me. Thankfully, she wanted to share a family favourite – “The Gruffalo” by Julia Donaldson – rather than the stilted phonics ‘reader’ that I feared was in her bookbag.
And so she began.
“A mouse took a stroll through a deep dark wood………” she read – not phonetically but from memory, with a delightful intonation of expectation.
“A fox saw the mouse and the mouse looked good…….” Fine. Repetition.
“Where are you going to, little brown mouse?……..” – more from memory.
“Come and have lunch in my underground……. Huh…..O…Uh……SSSS….Eh!” she said.
“Read it all together”, I said, hoping that she would recognise the ‘ouse’ rime to predict the unknown word.
“No” was her reply, “I’m sounding the word out”.
And so it went on.
Her reading, when not “sounding out”, was delightful. Her enjoyment of the text was evident, but every so often she stumbled across a word that was unfamiliar.
“Look at the illustration” – was my offering, encouraging the use of picture cues – but no, she “had” to sound the word out.
“Let’s read the rest of the sentence and go past the word you don’t know, and then we might be able to “get” the missing word”, said I, but no she “had” to sound out the word. [NB “Reading on” is a strategy that mature readers use all the time – we rarely “sound out” a la synthetic phonics unless all else has failed.]
“Muh – ohh –uh-ssss-eh” she sounded out.
“But you already know that word. You’ve said it at least ten times already” I said. Look at the picture of the …….. “mouse!”
This little girl is a fortunate soul. She has plenty of books at home – ones with real stories, written by authors who know how to entertain children and also know the importance of having many cues for reading. She’s intellectually capable which means that she can break down words phonetically and reassemble them to give meaning, and not every child is able to do this. She has parents and grandparents and other people in her life that are determined to give her the means to enjoy reading, and I have every faith in her ability to move from the “sounding out” stage of reading pretty rapidly. I just hope to goodness she doesn’t become bored of doing this to the extent that she is turned off reading.
Reading is a gift. Phonics is an essential component of learning to read – but so too are other prompts and cues. Illustrations in children’s books are frequently delightful – and they also help to carry meaning, which is, after all, the whole point of reading. Stories can be told through illustrations alone. Memorisation plays an important role. Imagination and creativity can come alive through looking at just one picture.
As human beings, we are not clones who learn and think and feel in exactly the same way. What helps for some is a hindrance to others. So it is with learning, and with learning to read.
This particular child wants and needs to read. She wants to share her reading. She wants to take off and have fun! The predominant role of ‘synthetic’ phonics in her learning is actually hindering her. It can’t be right to tell this child to stop using a range of strategies or cuing systems and to use only one. It’s pretty clear from her obstinate refusal to heed my helpful hints that she’s been directed to “sound out” a word as her sole strategy for reading – and never to use any other strategy.
As another obstinate blonde, my Christmas present to her will be my presence, alongside others, to ensure that she does use the other cues for reading, she does allow herself to make mistakes and to use other ways of identifying meaning in a text and to ensure she does become the fluent, imaginative, creative reader and writer that I know she has the ability and the will to be.
* Whole-to-part Phonics [CLPE]
“Interesting recent work on the importance of phonological awareness in learning to read, the role of analogy in that learning, the value of onset-rime approaches in considering how children analyse written words and the place of learning to write and spell in learning to read.”