The other day I was sitting in a waiting room and there happened to be a young lass aged 5/6. She picked up a book from the children's shelf and started to try and read it but there were too many words on the page, the text was too small and after attempting the first word, she gave up. Her mother intervened at this point and put her finger under the words and she managed a couple more, before giving up again. At this point her mother wisely said 'I'll read it to you.' So they snuggled up for a story, talking about the pictures as they went. This young girl's opinion of herself as a reader was kept whole.
With this picture before me I recalled something I'd read earlier this week. It was on a school's website where parents were complaining that the language in their child's reading book was so stilted and unnatural. Maybe you have thought this yourself?
Let's think about this. Let's look back at the young lass I saw. What was her expectation. She didn't pick up the book and ignore the words. She wanted to use her new reading skills to actually read the words. After all, we tell pre-school children enough times that they will learn to read when they go to school. Many of these pre-schoolers will have spent a couple of years pretending to read. And that's a great way to start, but they know they can't decipher the words and they desperately want to be able to. So they enter the Reception class with great expectancy! Bright eyed, bushy tailed, they are going to learn to read. The teacher sends home a book and tells them it's their reading book. It's a colourful book with several words in natural sounding sentences. But oh dear. There are so many words, and they have so few reading skills, that they know they can't properly read it. There are lots of pictures so they do what they are encouraged to do and make up a story and some may get some satisfaction from finding out that the words they came up with were actually written at the bottom of the page. Now this is because the author has tried to make the language as natural as possible, to match what a child will most probably say on looking at that picture. But it is a method that encourages guessing which may work with some, but as many teachers know and find, fails many children. This is called the Whole Language approach to reading.
For many children this isn't going to be good enough. They know that adults don't look at pictures and make it up. They read words, and they want to be able to do the same. For many children this making it up continues, and continues until they become despondent. Other seemingly brighter ones may have managed by now to remember what some of the words say (by look and say and maybe a smattering of phonics), but for many they remain a mystery and all they can do is 'make it up'. And in time, they give up. Reading becomes unpleasant, despite numerous teachers/classroom assistants all encouraging them with big smiles. They are soon left behind and in need of 'remedial programmes', not so labelled but that's what they are.
This was the way to teach reading when I started teaching back in the 1990's (and for many years before) and although the Government now insists on phonic teaching, old philosophies are only just under the surface. It may even have been the way you were taught. Most teachers when questioned will tell you that there is no one way that works with all children. Many still deep at heart believe that meaning is more important than decoding. Decoding is sneered at as secondary to meaning as if young children are not capable of making sense of anything by themselves. The truth is that of course we bring meaning to language, otherwise language is nonsensical and little children start to talk with an in-built need to communicate which presupposes meaning.
Now the scenario above need not have happened. Young childen are vastly underestimated in our day and age in my opinion. They are far more capable than us adults like to think. In years gone by children of 5/6 were not only reading and writing their own language fluently, but often another as well. And yet this is the age of progress. Our Reception children want to be able to read words. So why do we fob them off by trying to make them think they are reading when they know they are not reading words. Why don't we help them read the words?
Well let's try the scenario again. This time our Reception child starts school and the teacher says, 'Today I'm going to teach you to read.' Our little one sits up importantly. They want to read, after all, isn't this why they've come?
The teacher explains about the letters of the alphabet and how each ones represents a sound. S/he gives an example.
'When I think of the word 'apple' I think, what sounds can I hear? The first sound I can hear is 'a,a'. Can you hear it? Say it with me 'a-apple'. So we see that when this word is written down here, at the start of it is the letter that stands for 'a'' and s/he writes the letter 'a' on the board. The children after some more practice go to their desks to learn to write the letter 'a' and to maybe draw pictures of things they can think of beginning with 'a'. All the while the teacher is watching to see what impact her/his teaching is having: who needs more practice, who seems to be hearing the sound and feeling it with their lips and tongue? She uses this information to plan the next lesson.
'Tomorrow we will learn another sound, but tonight I want you take take a book home and look in it for as many words that start with an 'a' sound.' Get someone to read it for you and you follow the words and see if you can see any words starting with the sound 'a'.
So the book is taken home, but not with the expectancy of reading it, but of practicing that first nugget of knowledge that they have tucked under there wing. They find some words and feel hopeful that the next lesson will reveal more of the mystery of reading. Their confidence is well intact. The good teacher does not rely on this extra practice for the success of her/his teaching. S/he will ensure that every child will get all the help they need in class.
After a few more lessons they begin to put together stage 2 words from my programme - cvc words. Now these are very simple words and if you look at my sentences, there are not many and they do sound a little stilted. But nothing a child can't understand! I would not have sent books home for the child to read at this point. I would make sure that all parents understood the programme and that any books sent home at this stage were for sharing together. Many schools feel obliged to send 'reading books' home though, so they either send books with no words, to encourage the focusing on meaning, or they send especially written phonic books, the ones that seem very stilted. My only problem with these is that they are not individually written to match the progress of each pupil And that is precisely what is needed at this very early stage.
Once the child has learnt some basic sight words and can sound out to a reasonable level (say stage 6 of this programme), then they will have sufficient word knowledge to tackle books with more realistic language. But not before. It would be like expecting a toddler to talk in proper sentences. We model proper sentences for them, but we don't expect them to use them themselves yet. Why then do we expect children to read fluently when they are just starting out?
Therefore this programme does not expect children to be reading books from the word go. I wouldn't suggest starting Peter and Jane until level 6 when the concept of using units of sounds to build words is understood and they know some sight words. Then, keeping the phonics as the main part of the 'reading lesson' I might introduce a little reading from the reading book. The sight words in this programme do not have to be learnt exactly where they are. They have just been spread out over the course so as not to overwhelm the child with too many to learn at once, but they can be learnt in any order.
In the meantime they will be building increasing more complex sentences, making their own books, relevant to them and finding that they can read word on cereal packets, in the shops, and all around them. The written word has suddenly become alive. Reading is exciting. They can do it themselves!
What about meaning? WelI I can honestly say I have never met a child who doesn't understand the simple sentences of stage 2 and 3 and more. If we do come across a word they have never heard, we discuss it to give it meaning. We start with sounds, we build words and with words we build sentences, all the time the child will be bringing their knowledge of the world to bear on their reading. If you are doing as many of the things I outlined in my section 'Getting ready to read' as you can, then your child will have no problems with comprehension at this stage and even later on. Children will of themselves strive to make meaning of life, including what they read. They may for a time be so focused on decoding each word that they lose sense of the longer sentence, but if they re-read it, they will understand it. If you are not sure you can always talk about it and check what they have understood.
Do expect these early reading books to seem a little repetitious, especially at the beginning. It builds a budding readers confidence and fluency to see familiar words that they can 'remember' after having decoded them a few times. This is natural and to be encouraged. We don't want them decoding for ever! It is only a means to an end, but without decoding, many children are left to guess and have no means of working out new words and they can easily become despondent. Of course not all 'look and say' schemes take the whole language approach. The Ladybird series, Peter and Jane certainly doesn't. So the language in these books is rather stilted to begin with too.
The truth is that whole language methods don't work for all, but phonics can work for all if it is taught systematically, even for children with special educational needs. Children will naturally develop 'whole language' skills once they are comfortable and confident at the sound and word level and as they build their 'bank' of experiences in life. Reading lots of stories and encouraging children to re-tell them and write about them will be going along beside phonic teaching in a good classroom and home environment.
Don't underestimate your child!
Lilibette taught for many years in a London state primary school, having responsibility for the teaching of reading.