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Literacy that’s both progressive and traditional

posted in: Thoughts on Education

Everything these days, including education, seems to come in a polarised package. If I like A then I must also embrace B and C, and reject without question, D. I despise the assumptive and dismissive nature of these 'sides', not least because I have a mongrel educational history that can't now be undone.

You see, I am a product of the early 70's West Coast Open Education (home of Frank Smith) and I bless those experimenting teachers of the Bayview Open Area for their willingness to step outside the stuffy classroom teaching of their day. (Our days ran like a Carl Rogers text book.) I also understand it was considered a failed educational experiment, but that's for another post.

I am shaped by my constructivist past, but I also believe struggling readers must understand the relationship between the sounds they say out loud and symbols they see on a page and that this underpins reading for meaning. I'm willing to embrace this perceived traditionalism because I've seen young people and adults set free from their crushing sense of failure in education through the discovery of the English code.

My gut and experience tell me learning to read isn't a natural process like learning to speak and Steven Pinker assures me this is true. Therefore, once a young person has got to age eleven or so unable to read fluently, we need to abandon our overly-optimistic views about learning to read by reading. I wish it were true. I wish I could sit and read with my teenage strugglers and they would learn to make meaning out of the squiggles on the page. Please don't assume this means we don't read text; we read lots of text, but not without strategies in place for turning symbols into sounds. We also drastically limit the use of 'decodable' text (which has its place in early literacy instruction) in favour of reading real age-appropriate material because I've seen it's possible to do so and it gives teen and adult learners a huge boost to be reading and understanding things they never thought they could.

With all of that in mind, here are the main terms I've pinched from the -ists and -isms and re-defined for That Reading Thing.

Explicit Instruction – This means the subject we are concerned with is reading and we're not teaching history or car mechanics and expecting reading to be picked up implicitly. It doesn’t mean teaching about reading or making students memorize all the ways to write the 'ay' sound in English. No drill, no explaining derivations, there's no explicit teaching unless asked. There's plenty of time for teaching outside that precious one-to-one hour per week.

Systematic – The grapheme/phoneme correspondences are carefully controlled so learners can discover that the English code is both limited and learnable. The purpose of this structured system is not to satisfy a pedagogical leaning but to create a safety net so educationally vulnerable people can get on with learning to read without the anxiety they associate with school.

Discovery (but not random discovery) - This is my personal bias for learning anything - raised, educated and teacher-trained that way. In the case of reading this means discovering how the code works by using it over and over again in the context of whole and meaningful words, sentences and text. Success is aided hugely by a safe and friendly learning environment where we invoke 'The Deal' which is,'You never have to know anything we haven't learned together'. This type of discovery works best in the context of a system which is largely invisible to the student but very much evident to the teacher/facilitator. In other words, discovery, yes, but only because a well thought out structure allows it.

Teach/Facilitate – The prime function of the teacher/tutor in that one hour of That Reading Thing is to facilitate discovery, aided by the structure of the programme. Those who facilitate TRT sessions without unnecessary explanations get better and faster results.

Starting with sounds – If you want to facilitate discovery then it’s best to start with something your learner can already do. Assuming they have no serious hearing or speech impairment then you can start with the words they can hear and say and use in meaningful speech. By saying the word aloud, attaching a written symbol to each sound and writing the symbols in order whilst saying the sounds, they are discovering how the English code works. No one has to give a formal explanation of how it works. It is possible to learn to spell and read without ever knowing the words phoneme, grapheme or digraph - though these might now be words that your students have heard and never understood so feel free to use them if it makes sense to do so.

Guessing & Inferring – Most TRT students arrive with a primary strategy (when reading aloud) of guessing from first letter and general shape without regard for meaning. We spend a lot of time undoing this habit and making sure they decode accurately instead of throwing out ideas about what a word might be. This kind of guessing is not the same as inferring, which a good reader might do for the rare word they can decode but not understand.

Correcting Errors – There has to be a good way to get to the right answer without the instructor making the correction or embarrassing the student. Therefore, instead of correcting an error with an answer, you do a series of things to allow the learner to make their own correction, further their process of discovery and increase their confidence in their ability to deal with text. Answers are given only to prevent guessing.

Self-esteem - I've been told by the literacy lead in a college that she'd allowed adult learners to believe they were correct when they were wrong "in order to preserve their self-esteem". In response I can only say, there is nothing like learning to read to increase the confidence of the older learner who assumes they've been left out of something that everyone else seems to do with such ease. A systematic method in a laid back setting with ssting-free' error correction helps even the most vulnerable students re-envision themselves as confident learners.

Whether you're a die-hard 'ist' with a defined 'ism' or just a teacher frustrated daily by students who can't read very well, your learners (whether 12 or 54) need the skills, knowledge and confidence to get from sound to print and back again with age-appropriate vocabulary and real text.

2 Responses

  1. Virginia

    Entirely agree!!!!!

  2. Tricia

    Thanks, Virginia!

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