The Chore that keeps on Giving

I shared some ideas about children learning to read in my last blog and promised to ask the question: When does learning to read finish?

The quick answer to this is that it doesn’t. Certainly young people usually grasp the process, the mechanics of reading that enables them to convert marks on the page to meaning. The faster they can do this the more pleasure will follow. If they slow their development down before “getting up to speed” they might be adults who don’t read for pleasure and who are operating at a level well below what they are capable of. And simply being asked to “bark at print” won’t work! All ages get meaning from print by bringing meaning to print.

So why does there seem to so little emphasis on continuing to learn to read and on raising the levels  of competence among adults other than, seemingly, in prisons! Tertiary institutions are on the whole a little remiss in not including substantial language components in most of their courses.

Reading is generally driven by both necessity and opportunity. Around the 1970’s, a pattern of courses and books that were based on the use of language in different occupations and polytechnics were attracted to such courses. “English for Secretaries” and “Language and Science” cashed in on the movement coming out of the United Kingdom under the title of “Language Across the Curriculum.”  This was a breakthough movement that gave language the importance it needs if learning is to proceed.

The fuel for language is vocabulary – the words you know and can use. Many studies have shown that the size of a person’s vocabulary will asign then to various lecels of reading competence. Some words look easy but have multiple meanings. But highly specialist word are easy to use, it is those faux amis that catch you out. Some words are simple (bark,nails, jam, pool, mine etc.), others are slightly more difficult (bolt, season, novel, draft, squash etc.) while others could be thought of as hard (buckle, current, harbour, hatch, racket) and so on. This is because they each have multiple meaning and are capable of being used in different ways. This can be a trap for learners at every level and is a difficulty that learners of a language that is a second language find initially something of a barrier.

In technical subjects, words can be deceptively easy but obscure in the meaning given to them (belt, family, gall, lisp, patch, and shear etc.) It is not possible to rote learn all these ambiguities and shared meanings, which brings me to my last point – you learn to read by reading! Nothing else will substitute for this.

You might think that mention should be made of “writing”. No need to, you learn to write by reading!

PS   Get a good dictionary (i.e. Oxford Concise English Dictionary) can’t be beaten, keep it no more that arms length away, and use it!

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  1. Louise says:

    I agree. Reading ability is more than being able to decode language, that is just the ticket for entry. Giving readers the clues to what is meant through the many strategies, including vocabulary clarifications,is key.

    The discussions and explorations of how language works (and doesn’t) and positive messages that encourage learners to develop a self-efficacy around their reading skills is essential. Readers need this aspect if they are to be good writers.
    I recall a young man who said he couldn’t read well (all the diagnostic tests showed him this) who gained confidence when he realised that his reading of Popular Mechanics and the laws of cricket (he had just passed his umpires exam) was evidence that he had strong reading skill. A positive conversation about how language works was a useful support to his learning journey.

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