Reading and phonics programmes come and go through our school systems in fashionable spurts and this appears to be a universal trend. Some methods seem to deliver excellent results; others don’t elicit any meaningful change to reading competency levels in our learners. Some are popular and well marketed; others are solid and well researched. I’ve often wondered if the real result comes from the focused, intentional exposure and practice that simply comes part and parcel of a new and exciting implementation? Could it be that because educators and parents are paying particular attention to reading on acquiring a new reading scheme or literacy tool, the children are practising more and their skills are subsequently developing. I suspect so. The key to improved reading success lies in the practice and exposure opportunities exploited.
Reading is not a natural skill (Dr Susan Brady). It is a code developed in recent history that needs accurate deciphering to convey meaning. It is, arguably, an unnatural demand placed on the brain (Mary Anne Woolf). Reading engages many regions of our brain in a complex way. Will the 21st Century learner need to read anyway; after all, ‘listening is the new reading’? This forms a provocative question to put to educators who, by our own confession, steer the glacier that is educational reform. There is, perhaps, a strong argument that we will need to read even more than before. Perhaps, for children of school going age today, the world economy likely demands a more educated workforce and grade-level reading proficiency may well remain the key to that education (Annie E Casey Foundation, 2010). Therefore, in schools developing 21st Century skills, reading proficiency remains our priority. The truth is that in our changing world we cannot conceptualise the reading demands in ten years time with any certainty.
To achieve grade-level reading proficiency, we need deliberate, explicit instruction and repeated practice opportunities in reading for all children, but especially for struggling readers. Lost practice opportunities make it extremely difficult for poor readers to make up ground and keep up with their peers. It could even be argued that lost practice opportunities actually contribute to exclusion from the curriculum over time. Avid readers reportedly access approximately 5 000 000 words per year; poor readers only 50 000 (Nagy and Anderson, 1984). The difference is all about exposure and opportunities to read text. Poor readers, with and without difficulties with reading, it seems, are not reading at home and are not exposed to reading as a recreational activity. Non-proficient readers drop out of school. Eventually, this impacts the economy of any country significantly. Reading is a point of national interest and important to all of us, and South Africa is no exception.
It is possible that significantly impaired readers can read at grade level over two years if offered intense, frequent intervention and much opportunity to practise. Exposure, exposure, exposure is the refrain. The children need opportunity to recall words learned, revise their word knowledge and revisit recent learning. This deliberate practice and opportunity to read enhances the “sticky” factor, ensuring that word attack skills and words retrieved automatically ‘stick’.. Regular intervention and regular assessment produces a long lasting response. We must abandon our expectation that children will randomly making progress ‘in their time’, and eliminate potential or actual reading gaps intentionally, with expectation of growth in proficiency.
Many parents have children who, for one reason or another, are reading below grade-efficiency. Schools need parental involvement in reading daily, so:
- seek every practice opportunity you can to develop recreational reading – paired reading and shared reading;
- make reading a safe, encouraging situation like the paired reading model offers;
- read to and with your child;
- see the value of having your child seeing you read;
- be encouraged to believe that with specific intention and deliberate progress, your child can close the gap or enough of it to make grade level progress – this won’t come easily and requires your buy in and your child’s;
- even if it is hard going and the art of reading seems out of reach, don’t abandon the effort – your child will need to read in the workplace and in life and we should get as close to the grade proficiency as possible before moving to assistive technology entirely;
- read, read, read!