When a child is speaking many words and using them as an integral part of his personality, he is ready to read them. In teaching reading to young children, word selection is often the first place where we go wrong. We pull words from thin air and try to put them into the child. Often we make matters worse by putting these strange words into printed context outside the realm of the child’s experience and expecting him to read–and he cannot. Children can learn to read any word they speak. One of the greatest hoaxes in all of educational pedagogy is that which says that reading vocabulary must be developed in a predeter¬mined logical sequence.
This simply is not the case. Linguists tell us that when a child comes to school he has all the language gear he needs in order to learn reading and all the other skills of lan¬guage. The trouble is that we do not use his gear. We manufacture artificial systems of language development and methods of teaching reading, and we impose them on children. It is almost as though the child has to learn two languages in order to be able to read-one for communication and one to “get through” his reading books. More study has been done in the area of reading than in any other area of the elementary school curriculum.
This is justifiable because reading is an important skill needed for learning. But it is not the most important method of communication. It is important only to the degree that it communicates. Much confusion exists about this research. It is the sec¬ond place where we go wrong. We have built up a vast store¬house of knowledge about reading, but all the needed knowledge is not yet known. And, because there are great gaps in that knowledge, we have turned to the next best source-the opinion of the experts in the reading field.
Many experts have advocated their “systems” of teaching reading, basing them on known truths but filling in the gaps with their own ideas. When gaps in knowledge are filled in with opinions, we often confuse the two. As a result, schools have often adopted a reading system so wholeheartedly that teachers are not permitted to skip one page of a basal reading book or omit one single exercise in the reading manual that accompanies the text. Many teachers have simply become intermediaries, transmitting the ideas of the authors of a basal series to the children and not daring to use their own ideas to teach reading as a communication skill.
This course of action takes all the sense out of language skill development and reduces the role of the teacher to that of a pawn. Undoubtedly, no imagination can break through such rigid orthodoxy. Teachers are teaching experts. Their training has made them this. Reading experts can help with a multitude of ideas, but they cannot possibly know the problems of any one teacher with any one group of children. Basal readers and teachers’ manuals work only if they are tailored to the group of children using them; they can be invaluable when used this way but are almost useless when they are not.
Teachers should endeavor to do activities, which relate to the experiential background of the children they are teaching. In fact, doing activities that are foreign to the child’s background is like teaching another language in order to get them to read. Every reading programme needs to take first into account the particular group of children and each child within that group. If this is not the case then the approach is pseudoscientific. Only a teacher can know and understand the needs of the children he or she teaches. If any significant progress is to be made in any reading programme, then the teacher indeed must know his or her children.
Reading is most effectively taught when the teacher becomes the source of the plan of the teaching and when he or she is able to make use of the experts’ books, resources, learning aids, procedures, and ideas to help her devise her own plan for her own particular group of children. Since teaching is a creative role, the teaching of reading must be a creative process. Linguistic research over the past forty years has given us greater insights as to how reading should be taught. Reading is the active process of constructing meaning from words that have been coded in print.
Printed and spoken words are meaningful to the young child only to the extent where his field of experience overlaps that of the author of the printed text. The reader learns from a book only if he is able to comprehend the printed symbols and rearrange them into vivid experiences in his mind. A child’s ability to think, to rationalize, and to conceptualize makes it possible for him or her to accept new ideas from a printed page without actually experienc¬ing the new idea. He or she must however, possess the knowledge of each symbol that helps make up the new idea.
Ideally, the teacher would show a picture of an object and, through discus¬sion, build the understandings necessary to give children a correct visual image of the object. Because of the unusual shape of some words (e. g. kangaroo) chil¬dren memorized them quickly, but nothing is usually learned until the words take on meaning. The teacher should give the words meaning by using the children’s experiences. Experience combined with the power of imagery will make it possible for children to acquire new understandings, concepts, and learn¬ings from their reading of each new word.
Reading is not word calling; it is getting the meaning of the printed word from the page. The teaching of reading means assisting children to obtain those skills needed to get the meaning of the word from the printed page. However, the gaining of all the skills is of little or no worth without the experience with the words to make them meaningful. This is a basic component to all reading. It should now be clear why young children, before they can really learn to read, must have a wide range of expe¬riences to which they have attached a multitude of oral symbols.
It should be clearly understood too, why the primary program in reading must be loaded with experiences to which children and teachers apply symbolic expression. This will permit the children to be constantly building up new words in their oral vocabulary so that they will be able to read them. The children’s ability to read is a skill or tool that makes it possible for an author to communicate with them. Children read because they are curious about what is on the page. The reading process itself is not sacred.
It is what the reading communicates to the child that is crucial. Reading is not the only important means of communication nor is it the best. To assure the successful development of a good primary literacy program, children must have a large background of experiences, the ability to listen well, and a good oral vocabulary that labels their experiences meaningfully. With this background, almost every child can be taught to read, provided, of course, he also has the required intelligence and has no serious physical, so¬cial, or emotional problem.
Teaching reading as a subject rather than a means for communication can be boring and tedious for children. No one reads reading. The child reads something, be they letters, books, poems, stories, newspapers — and he reads with intent. Each reading experience with chil¬dren should have meaningful content, obvious purpose, and pleas¬ant associations. The wide socioeconomic and experiential backgrounds of children, combined with their physical development and intellectual ability, will determine the points at which children are able to begin the formal reading process effectively.
The teacher is responsible for the continued development of the child as a whole, and to deprive him of a rich variety of experiences so that he may spend time reading from books is the quickest way to insure reading difficulty among children, in both ability and attitude. When a first-grade teacher sees the teaching of reading as her most important objective and allocates a major part of the child’s day to reading, she is capitalizing on the exceptional experiences the home and the kindergarten have provided for the child.
For, after all, these give meaning to his reading stories, which, at the first grade level, are based on his first-hand home and school ex¬periences. She may flatter herself on the excellent reading ability of her children and be smug in her knowledge that she can teach any child to read! What she fails to realize is that unless she continues to provide suitable additional experiences in social studies, community contacts, literature, music, and so forth, she is depriving succeeding teachers of their privilege of doing a good job in teaching reading.
This explains why, too often, children start out as good readers but experience reading difficulty by the time they reach third grade. They lose meaning in their reading because planned background experience stops when formal read¬ing begins. Their real first interest in reading lies in their joy at dis¬covering they can read. To exploit this joy, and to use it for need¬less repetition, means to soon destroy the only motivation children have.