To the Point - Do you read me?

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I often get into heated discussions with people about reading. I find that one of the reasons for the heat is that, as we get deep into the discussion, I discover that we are using the word 'read' in different ways.


For many years, people working in education have taken it for granted that a child reading words, sentences or passages in a book out loud was 'reading'. However, it isn't what most of us do when we read. Most of the time we read silently and we read for meaning. That's to say, we read to find out things or to be entertained.

As long as most children who read out loud successfully also learn to read for meaning more or less at the same time, we don't need to take much notice of these differences. The problem crops up if we invent a teaching-to-read system that is based entirely on getting children to read out loud. That's what 'first, fast and only' synthetic phonics teaching is. It teaches children how to read out loud. On its own, with no other input, no other teaching, it cannot do anything else. It is simply, and only, a system for matching the sounds we make ('phonemes') with the letters and combinations of letters we make ('graphemes').


So, the question that I and others ask is: how can children being taught by first, fast and only synthetic phonics learn how to read for meaning? Some phonics enthusiasts say that children just pick it up: they match the language they know from their talk among family members, teachers and friends with the language they are reading. Of course this leaves out those children who are not speaking English at home and, as in some cases, not very much in the playground either. But how easy is it to match what we read with the way we talk?

Try an experiment: record two children talking to each other. Transcribe it - every single word and part of a word. Now compare that with a few pages of any piece of writing that the children might come across in the first five years of their lives: a picture book story, some food packaging aimed at them, a letter from a relative. You will see very quickly some major differences. Here are some: when children talk to each other, the things they say mostly come in short bursts. All of us when we talk spend a lot of time tailing off, repeating things mid-flow, correcting ourselves, interrupting or being interrupted, talking at the same time as others, hesitating, showing what we mean by waving our arms around. We use 'personal pronouns' an enormous amount (I, you, he, she, it, we, they). What's more, the subject matter of talk is taken up a good deal with discussion of everyday stuff that's around us, or events that took place earlier in the day.

What we ask children to read is very different. It's uninterrupted, no hesitation and mostly about people we don't know. There is no correction, repetition is only for effect - and so on. This written 'code' is what we are asking children to learn to read. It's a code that they don't use when speaking with family and friends.


What conclusion should we draw from this? Quite simple really. We should spend as much time as possible immersing all children in the sound, feel and meaning of the written language, so that they can hear and feel the way it works. The easiest way to do this is to surround them with books, magazines and comics that they will want to hear read to them, and that they will want to look at again and again.

Any child in your care who has this kind of 'immersion' or 'surround sound' of written language will do well at school. This is known and acknowledged the world over.

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