Teaching beginning reading and writing
So-called ‘balanced approaches’ to teaching reading attempt to address the complexity of the reading task by teaching its different components with different activities. Activities such as alphabet and phonics activities for recognising letters and sounds, spelling activities for letter patterns in words, sight word drills for memorising common words, practice with levelled reading books for recognising words in sentences.
The problem with these standard practices in the early years of school is that they dis-integrate the reading task into separate activities, in separate program times, using different words, texts, letters and sounds, often in individualised activities. Children from highly educated families, who may spend 1000 hours in parent-child reading before they start school (Williams, 1995), can recognise the functions of all these activities, and rapidly become independent readers. But for children without this experience, many of these activities are meaningless. They cannot re-integrate them and so develop their reading skills more slowly, often very slowly indeed.
It is widely assumed that weak readers suffer from a deficit of decoding skills. This view is based on a misunderstanding of the complexity of the reading task, and the social nature of learning cycles. As a result, struggling readers are routinely prescribed endless drills with phonics and other programs, and continual testing with levelled reading books. These programs make a lot of money for their publishers, but they are the exact opposite of what these students actually need.
In fact, the most effective activity that early years teachers do is shared book reading (Holdaway, 1982), which may not be seen as a ‘literacy activity’ at all. In shared book reading, teachers talk through a picture storybook with their class, and tell them what it is about, in terms that all children can understand, before and while they are reading it aloud to them. What they are doing is preparing children for the task of following the story with understanding as it is read. Each story may be read many times, until all the children can understand and say many of its words along with the teacher, who often elaborates by asking children about the story.
In the best shared reading practice, these questions are always about what the children already know, or can see in the pictures, so that that their answers are always affirmed. This activity is so valuable because it is precisely what happens in parent-child reading, which functions to engage children in the pleasure of reading, and prepares them to become readers (Williams, 1995).
This engagement, understanding and pleasure from shared book reading is a natural starting point to teach reading (Gray 1987). Instead of de-contextualised memory drills in alphabet, phonics and sight words, the logical step is to take sentences from the shared book that children already know, and use them to start reading. Instead of memorising meaningless ‘sight words’, children can easily develop on-for-one word recognition if we guide them to recognise the written words they can already say in a sentence, that we have written on a cardboard strip. We can prepare by pointing at each word and saying them, as they say along with us. Using this simple method, all children are very quickly able to accurately point and say each word in the sentence, because they are supported by the sequence of words they know, and what they look like. They do not need to ‘decode’ their spelling first.
The next step is then to cut the sentence up into word groups, put them back into sequence and say it again. We can prepare by asking children who the sentence is about, what they are doing, where and when. Their tasks are then to identify and cut each word group, and put them back in sequence. This activity, known as sentence making, can then be repeated by cutting word groups into individual words, putting them back and saying them again. These activities give children total control over recognising and understanding the words and meanings in a written sentence (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: Sentence making
At this point, we can guide students to cut words into their letter patterns, and practise spelling them. We can prepare by showing and asking them to say the syllables in words, and the letter patterns that start and finish each syllable. Their tasks are then to cut up the letter patterns, and practise writing them, ideally on small whiteboards that can be erased and rewritten (Figure 4).
Figure 4: Scaffolding spelling
We can prepare by showing them how to form each letter, until they can form them accurately. Once they can spell the main words in a sentence, we can guide them to write the whole sentence. We can prepare by writing the other words and asking them to write the ones they know. We can elaborate by repeating the activity until they can write the whole sentence accurately themselves.
This sequence of activities can rapidly teach all children to read and write sentences they know from shared reading books (Rose, 2011b; Rose, Gray & Cowey, 1999). It is so effective because firstly it deals with each level of the reading task in a ‘top-down’ sequence, and secondly it is carefully taught in learning cycles that prepare children for each task.
The teaching sequence starts at the level of context, with preparing children to follow the shared reading book with understanding, in other words with ‘interpretive comprehension’. As the book is read, the teacher explains connections between each event (using the pictures), giving the children ‘inferential comprehension’. As each page is read, meanings are explained as children learn to say the words, giving them ‘literal comprehension’. Decoding activities then start, not with letters and sounds, but with whole meaningful sentences, then the chunks of meaning that make up each sentence, then each word, then the letter patterns that spell each word. Writing then builds back up, from known letters, to words, to sentences. Each step in the sequence makes perfect sense in the context of the preceding steps, so that all children can easily focus on each learning task in turn.
Each of these activities begins with whole-class teacher-directed tasks. We prepare, and all children listen and discuss the story. We prepare, and each child points, says, cuts up and arranges the words in the sentence, either in turn at the front of the class, or in groups with their own sentence strips, following our directions. In each cycle, the task is prepared and control is handed to the children to do the task. In the spelling and writing activities, we prepare by showing, and then hand control to children to practise on their own boards. If we have prepared effectively, each child will be able to do the task, and we can praise them. If not, we still praise and prepare again until they are successful. Children are never tested, but are repeatedly prepared and praised until they can do each task successfully.