A very enjoyable part of my journey as a teacher was a very wide and intensive engagement with language and especially reading. I was teaching at a school with a student population that was struggling with English language. It was required in a New Zealand school setting but was anew language for many of the students, certainly the formal brand required indoors. They had quite adequate vernacular outdoors. English was not a mother tongue for most of them.
Already I have mentioned two key principles without being specific – first, “reading” is a subset of “language” and secondly, success in reading relies heavily on success with language. The language-poor simply do not have the currency to cash in as a reader. So, what do we do about this as children come through school?
Above all, if students for whom English is a second language and for others who struggle, the only hope of real success in reading is to ensure that these wonderfully potentially gifted speakers of another language are not in a position of ever using these assets. In short, get cracking at teaching the first/mother languages of the students – those are the language systems their DNA holds captive until unleashed by good teaching and appropriate environments.
Next is the important principle that “students get meaning from print because they bring meaning to print”. If the materials they are using to learn how language works are alien to the things they hear, the interactions they indulge in, and the nuances and tones do not carry the music of their tunes rather than the sounds and accents of foreign voices, they struggle.
The miracle of watching little ones learn to read is the relatively small period when “the penny drops” – they understand what it is to read. They have skills now at determining how words sound in ways that mean things and as this facility becomes more secure, they get faster and that is the key. They have the appetite to learn to read. Many children do not get the meaning of the material they are using because it is a languorously plodding and slow and boring chore.
Of course, schools then placed barriers in the way. In my childhood they were reading books like the Janet and John series (based on the American Alice and Jerry readers), and then later stories about Daddy flying to Wellington on the Viscount! They were greeted with a vacant stare.
Reading is about connecting words discover worlds that are able to be related to world inhabited by people like the reader. Adults not being seen to read are not serving young ones well. And learning language skills appropriate to levels higher than the relatively beginning levels I have skipped over in this blog will be the subject of the next blog.