Posts Tagged ‘learning to read’

On learning to read

December 31, 2021

The eldest of our grandchildren is now at school, and learning to read. Given that reading is such an important part of my life, and always has been, I find it strange that I can recall very little about how I actually learned to read. I remember nothing at all from before I went to school as a rising five; ours was a poor household and there was no money for books. However, when in Class 1 Miss Marvell began the process of teaching us, I do recall that it seemed quite straightforward to me, so I must have been ready or prepared in some way for it.

The letters of the alphabet were on charts high up on the classroom walls, and I remember our having to chant the sounds aloud, in unison. Shortly after this came a series of flashcards with ‘sentences’ on them, which again we were required to chant; I remember thinking they were daft at the time. The one that has stuck in my mind for sixty-odd years said, “Mother, mother, see Kitty!” and I can remember thinking, “Who on earth would speak like that?”

Eventually there were readers – the Janet and John series, I think, that we shared one between two, and took in turns to read a sentence aloud. Again I recall thinking that I wanted to read a lot more than one sentence because this new skill was so exciting and I could do it, and also feeling impatient with those who couldn’t master the words, or stumbled over them. At the same time as acquiring this new skill, we were also learning how to write, beginning with individual miniature blackboards (as chalkboards were then called) and graduating to pencil and paper as soon as our fine motor skills were good enough. Here I remember being cross about having to use the pencil and paper, because I quite liked the business with the chalk…

Yet I was never conscious that I was learning to read and write; I hoovered it all up, along with the excitement and the possibilities it opened up. I have no recollection of taking readers home from school and practising with my parents; I don’t think such things happened in those days – school was school, home was home, and quite honestly, my parents were too busy running a home and family.

When I think about it now, I realise that the ability to master and operate with text was crucial to schooling in those days, for everything came from printed textbooks, with a very few black and white line illustrations. In other words, if you couldn’t read, you were seriously stuck. I remember that in the second class, those of us who could read competently were paired up with those who needed practice, to help them and hear them read. Again, uncharitably, I found this tedious, as at the age of going on six I couldn’t see how anyone couldn’t understand those letters and words…

Still no books at home. I must have been coming up to seven when my mother realised that she could sign me up to the children’s section of Stamford Public Library, and I can truly say that from that moment I never looked back. I read anything and everything, not quite indiscriminately, but pretty promiscuously. I can remember particularly the Young Traveller series, which probably sparked off that bug – two children in a nice, white middle-class family who got taken off to lots of interesting countries and saw the sights, tried the food and learned about habits and customs: I wanted to be able to do that. I exhausted the possibilities of the children’s library by the age of twelve, at which point my mother went and soft-talked them into allowing me access to the ‘grownups’ library several years early…

There were also the small classroom libraries at school: when you had successfully completed a task, it was often easiest for the teacher to send you off to get a book to read until everyone else had finished, and the class could move on to the next thing together. Again, I hoovered up everything, and can remember being particularly interested in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, which I devoured large chunks of.

Finally, I also began to acquire some books of my own: my parents realised how much reading meant to me. I was thrilled when they bought me Winnie the Pooh, and overjoyed when Christmas and birthdays brought book tokens, with which I bought my first copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and also The Wind in the Willows. That last one I still have, a treasured item in my now vast library. And I know that there’s a certain snobbishness or superiority in saying this, but I cannot understand people who can, but do not read, and I have never understood how it’s possible to have a home without books…

What comes out of all this is my realisation of the incredibly liberating effect of education. I’m always very moved when I read about the lengths that some children in the Third World go to, in order to be able to get to school, and I appreciate my father’s determination that I should get a good education – he had four winters of school, 1922-26 and that was it…

Maryanne Wolf: Proust and the Squid

July 2, 2020

91T9T2C1FjL._AC_UY218_     Something prompted me to return to this fascinating book on what happens to the brain when we learn to read, or indeed, if for various reasons we have difficulties with the process, such as dyslexia. It probably never occurs to us that, although we are born with brains wired for us eventually to develop speech, this is not true of reading or writing, processes that every human needs to learn from scratch. The open architecture of the brain allowed the possibility of humans developing writing and reading…

And then we must take into account the transformative power of these last two achievements on humans and their societies, compared with those which are only oral.

Wolf explains pretty clearly – to this lay and unscientific reader – the astonishing complexity of the processes which take place in the human brain, first in the process of learning to read, and then, when we are readers, in the processing of the texts we read.

Initially, humans developed representative and repeatable signs which could be learned, and eventually derived more sophisticated alphabets where the complete array of sounds could be mapped onto signs or letters. It was fascinating to discover that the human brain functions differently if it has to process ideograms in languages like Chines or letters in languages like ours. Equally, the regularity of an alphabet in the way it maps sounds to writing can lead to earlier fluency in reading: English orthography does not help us here!

There are more interesting historical and philosophical questions for us to reflect on, too: did the alphabet, leading to reading and writing, liberate humans from the hard work involved in sustaining an oral tradition (remembering everything and ensuring it was all passed down accurately through the generations), and thereby allow more complex thought? It may be that writing changed the way we think…

Apparently Socrates was very wary of reading and the written word, feeling that it was dead (thoughts and ideas frozen by being committed to paper), inflexible (once written down it is canonised, in a way) and that it destroys memory (look, for instance, at how little we expect school students to memorise texts such as poems nowadays). And, ironically, Socrates’ thoughts only survive for us now over two millennia later because Plato wrote them down…

Wolf is also very interesting on problems with reading – those often grouped together conveniently under the general heading ‘dyslexia’ – again seeking to explain what happens differently, often much more slowly, in the brains of those faced with such difficulties. It becomes very technical, although to realise that there are differences in how dyslexia affects people according to their language I found very interesting, and I also realised how helpful some of this material would have been early on in my career as a teacher.

There are implications in all of this for our future, which Wolf does not neglect: what changes may be being wrought in the human brain at this very moment with the move from printed to digital text, and the different ways that text can now be used and consumed? She contrasts immediacy with critical effort, and I think that this is an important area for further reflection and consideration; there is a certain kind of ease in the use of digital text which makes me ‘uneasy’. I can recall being unnerved when students used to say to me – of an older generation used to remembering and recalling things at will – “Oh, I don’t need to learn/ know that, because I can look it up…” Where might that lead our species, eventually?

Reading and not writing

October 17, 2017

I’m not often brought to a halt by something I read, but this happened as I was reading Diarmaid MacCulloch‘s Reformation, and it was the question of a separation between being able to read and to write that brought me up short, and led to a length discussion with my other half, who, as a retired primary school teacher, was exactly the right person to have at hand…

I’d been familiar with the idea that, until the early Middle Ages, reading had not been a silent activity, that is that a person when reading would vocalise what s/he was reading, either silently or aloud (which of course slows the reading process down considerably), and that it had been a revelation when it was discovered that this vocalisation was not necessary – one could ‘just’ read, as it were, just as we do now… and children, of course, need to learn this, or realise this, or perhaps they just pick it up.

Anyway, to me the processes of reading and writing had always gone hand-in-hand; I’ve never separated the two, particularly as, in my experience, we learn to do them at the same time, in the early years of our schooling. I’d never thought any further about this until I came across the idea that a person might be able to read, but not be able to write, and it took me a long time to make sense of this.

It was carefully explained to me that there are various different ways of teaching children to read, some of which lend themselves to learning to write rather more easily than others. And then, there are a whole range of fine motor skills and also secretarial skills involved in the process of writing, which also have to be learnt, and might not be. And then there is the whole question of sentences.

We do not tend to speak in sentences: a transcript of any conversation will demonstrate this. So the units of meaning necessary to writing also have to be taught and learned. Not only does a child need to learn to write in sentences – something which, from my experience as a teacher, a good many never do with any great competence – they also need to work out how to articulate their ideas into sentences before they attempt to write them down. And this is pretty difficult, as primary teachers will testify.

Once I understood this, I realised how the two processes, which are clearly very different, could have been separate from each other in the past: it’s only current educational systems that have linked them together, for convenience’ sake. And then: what does a person actually need to write? If you are a person of any note or importance and cannot write, you can have someone who will do that for you. People in India still make their living as public scribes for those who cannot write, but may occasionally need something written out for them. Perhaps you only need to write lists, or figures. You may need to make a mark to authenticate a document. But do you have a need to write in sentences? And to learn all that complicated stuff?

Then I found myself thinking about the advent of technology, and the difference it may make or be making to these processes. Gone is the need for pencil control and other fine motor skills when there is a keyboard, either physical or on-screen, to produce perfect, identical letters for you. And I suppose a grammar checker – bane of my life – can help you identify when you haven’t formed a proper sentence. Spellcheckers can allegedly help with correct spelling, although I used to remind students that a spellchecker is only as intelligent as the person using one. But technology can’t frame proper sentences for you: you have to be able to structure and articulate what you want to say first…

I’ve often wondered why there hasn’t been that much progress in ‘speak-write’ technology (even Orwell had it working perfectly in the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-four), and I can see that apart from removing the need for any keyboard skills at all, it will not advance the work of a non-writer any further than we have currently progressed.

And yet, writing skills are disappearing: many students do so much of their work using keyboards that they cannot write an essay longhand any more, and universities are working out how to allow students to complete examination papers using computers. If your smartphone can contain everything that you might ever have needed pen and paper for in the past, where does that leave the future of writing? I don’t know where we will end up in the future, but I do find questions like these absolutely fascinating…

My A-Z of Reading: S is for School

December 10, 2016

School was where I met the joys of reading. There was the alphabet frieze around the walls in class one, as we chanted our letter sounds, building them up into words. There were Miss Marvel’s bonkers flashcards which we chanted aloud: Mother, Mother, see Kitty! Even then I thought, but who talks like that? Why can’t we have real speech to chant? Janet and John readers, late 1950s gender role stereotypes.

Teachers read stories to us, as a reward for good work, and at the end of the day, when we were tired from all that school work. It was a treat; I don’t remember it happening at home. Certainly we didn’t get sent home with readers. There were small class libraries: I worked my way through everything. I remember a series of a couple of dozen books about a bear and her adventures – Mary Plain, she was called. Long before Paddington was ever invented. Eventually I moved onto the boys’ books – Biggles, and Jennings, and the earliest science fiction I could remember, the Secret Planet series.

There were factual books, too, to feed my quest for knowledge. The vast and even then ancient Children’s Encyclopaedia by Arthur Mee, patriotic, imperialist and I don’t know how many other kinds of ideological unsoundness, but a huge reservoir of information which I greedily hoovered up.

There was Stamford Public Library, with a children’s section which I soon exhausted – the vast Young Traveller series, where two white, British, middle-class children visited countries all over the world and I learned about them, sparked my interest in geography and travel. My mum persuaded the librarians to allow me to join the adult library several years early…

School, of course, brought more than just reading: there was understanding and interpreting what I read, right from the very earliest days of comprehension exercises. And eventually it would bring other languages, too: Latin and French for starters.

In my later years, I have realised just how much of my early schooling was focused on that key skill of learning to read, and developing an enjoyment of reading. Yes, there were lots of other subjects, too, but the ability to read fluently was vital in all of them. Books were a natural part of the surroundings, and the treat when one finished a task successfully before the rest of the class – choose a book to read. My teachers fostered my love of books and reading, and, along with the town library, provided what a financially poor home could not; when people run down our education system and public services, I remember what they provided for me.

Reading in class

March 25, 2016

It’s coming up to five years since I said farewell to the classroom, and I find myself thinking quite a lot about what I used to do, and how and why; clearly processing something here, so I thought I’d share my musings, which are related to the broader issues of reading and literature.

Many young children are fortunate in being read to regularly at home; the most obvious example is the bedtime story. Then they are read to frequently at primary school, and enjoy this, too. I always felt that there is no reason that this should stop at secondary school. After all, many adults enjoy listening to audiobooks, perhaps while commuting. So, I always made it a practice to read whole texts with my classes; in the early years of secondary school, there was free choice, but later on the books were dictated by the demands of GCSE.

I always chose books that would be a challenge, in terms of language or subject matter; they were books that students often said they would never have chosen to read themselves, but nevertheless they were glad to have read the book in class. And we read the entire book, word for word, cover to cover. I really think this sharing and (perhaps) enjoying together was really important; there was no sending them away to read a couple of chapters for homework so we could get through it more quickly. The exciting bits we shared; the boring bits we shared, too, and out of them might come all sorts of interesting discussion: OK, that’s boring to you, so why do you think the writer did it like that?

All sorts of activities sprang from the book: looking up and learning new words; discussion of all sorts of topics and issues that came up – the story could be paused so that opinions could be aired. Anything was grist to the mill. Writing activities offered themselves: creative responses, dramatic or analytical ones, reviews and opinion pieces.

Everyone got to read. I would read frequently, to keep that pace of the story going, to pick up the threads after a not-so-good reader had finished, to ensure that we got to a suitable place to stop at the end of the lesson (didn’t always manage that!). Sometimes students volunteered; usually between a third and half the class were game for that; often I picked on students or read around the class, to ensure that all got the necessary practice. So much was gained by this sharing, it was clear to me; an outsider might think it was all a skive or a doddle for the class, when it was so much more. There was learning and enjoyment at the same time – what more could one ask for?

On learning to read…

March 10, 2015

12906602197481I sometimes think about the process of learning to read, and how astonishing it is, because it opens up a whole new world beyond the real, physical world, to a child. There’s normally controversy about how it should be done, especially in England, where education has long been a political football; as my wife was a primary teacher, we sometimes discuss the issue and compare notes on our experiences.

I went back to my own experience. Firstly, I have no recollection of being read to at home, whereas this is nowadays a joy to children and their parents. There were no books, although I’m not completely clear whether this was a class thing, because of lack of money, or because books for small children were not widely available during my childhood. So, learning to read happened at school, beginning in Miss Marvell’s class in my case, with an alphabet frieze around the top of the classroom walls to chant together, and flashcards which she held up for us to recite – ‘Mother Mother see Kitty’ being the only one I can remember, thinking it a rather odd statement to be making, even at the age of five… In Mrs Harvey’s class we read together, read aloud individually, and she read to us, which I loved; my picture is of it all coming together pretty quickly and without any real difficulty. I do recall having to help one or two of the ‘weak’ readers with their books. What thrilled me was the discovery of longer books, with actual stories in them: I was hooked very quickly.

I was enrolled in Stamford Public Library at an early age, and often made daily visits to get another book to read. I discovered science fiction written for children, and loved the idea that there might be other worlds out there. It was there that I came across the ‘Young Traveller‘ series, in which a (nuclear, white, middle class) family of parents and children visit different countries of the world and are introduced to different foods, traditions and practices, and see the main tourist sites. All very wholesome, and illustrated by inset pages of black and white photographs. But I am not surprised that I love travel, and travel writing in my later years.

I worked my way through the classroom libraries in school, reading pretty much everything, including large parts of the ten-volume Children’s Encyclopaedia by Arthur Mee. Once you had completed whatever task the teacher had set for that session, you got sent off to pick a reading book… bliss.

I began to acquire books, slowly, and my father made me a small bookcase for my bedroom – I still have it. I loved the relatives who sent me book tokens for Christmas and birthdays, rather than the usual boring stuff. One of them bought me The Wind in the Willows – the oldest book in my library – and another bought me The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (and we all know what that led to!). I also read comics, hoovering up the adventures of Dan Dare, although I don’t think my parents fully approved of this sort of literature.

I think things are rather different nowadays. Libraries are a shadow of their former selves in this individualistic and consumer-oriented age; printing techniques have developed enormously to allow the production of beautiful children’s books; schools are tackling some of the issues connected with poverty and class attitudes to education. For me, learning to read set my imagination free for life, and, as a child, it was at least on a par with the discovery of Lego…

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