Why learning to read is difficult, and how we can help our children
By Sarah Ohlson de Fine, Grade 3 Class Teacher – Bellavista School
Learning to read is the foundational skill children need to master, as reading underpins all of education. But learning to read is an incredibly complex and multifaceted skill that our human brain is not innately wired for. As a human you are born ready to listen and learn language, ready to learn the motor skills to walk and run – but you aren’t born ready to read.
What is reading?
Reading is a complex man-made skill that involves several parts of your brain. When we read a word (for example, the word ‘cat’), we take the visual information of letters on a page (in this case, the letters c – a – t). We then process this visual information by linking the visual image of the letters to the sounds these letters represent. Then we link that information to a concept you already know about that word – picture of a cat, your cat at home, cats you may have seen – this all happens in microseconds.
The goal of reading is to understand what you read
The goal of all reading is comprehension. We want children to be able to make meaning and understand what they read. To break this down into more manageable parts, have a look at this model:
The Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tumner, 1986).
Reading Comprehension is the quotient of word recognition and language comprehension. What is a quotient? It is the answer you get when two factors are multiplied. If you think back to the Maths you learned at school, you will know that if there is a problem with one of the factors this will impact the answer. ‘The Simple View’ formula makes it clear that strong reading comprehension cannot occur unless both decoding skills and language comprehension abilities are intact.
How can we help children learn to read?
In the early years of formal education there is a distinct focus on teaching children the letters of the alphabet and the sounds that these letters make. This is called phonics, and it forms the basis of reading and spelling. Children need a lot of practice when learning their phonics skills. It is not enough for children to be exposed to a concept once – they need to continue to build on and practise that concept. Children also need to review the phonics skills year after year and build on that knowledge.
Once children have learned the alphabetic code, vocabulary is the single most important factor in reading comprehension. There is a remarkably close link between reading comprehension and vocabulary. Vocabulary refers to the students’ knowledge of and memory for word meaning. Vocabulary can be broken down into receptive and expressive language – receptive language is the words we understand, expressive language is the words we use.
Children learn the meanings of most words indirectly, through everyday experiences with oral and written language. Other words are learned through carefully designed instruction. Researchers agree that vocabulary is critical to reading comprehension because it overlaps with verbal intelligence and background knowledge. Good reading comprehension depends on knowledge of the meanings of the words in the text.
How can we build strong readers?
Reading aloud to children is an extremely beneficial and important process in learning to read. Through reading aloud to children, they start to develop stronger vocabulary. Reading aloud to children builds the connections between the spoken and written word. It also provides enjoyment and promotes bonding. By reading aloud to children you can increase their attention span and strengthen their mental processing skills.
“The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading, is reading aloud to children – even when they are very young.” – On Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report on the Commission on Reading.
Sign up for the Bellavista SHARE 2022 Online Conference. Teaching our children to be critical, independent thinkers is an essential component of educating for the future. Cognitive education is key to securing a better future for our youth. Join the Bellavista SHARE team as they explore the power of cognitive education with international and local experts from May to June 2022. The conference will run for five consecutive weeks, beginning on Wednesday 11 May 2022, and ending on Wednesday 8 June 2022. Each week a 1-hour live webinar will be held with a specific expert exploring their topic of interest.
Attendees can book for the full line-up, or individual webinars. Visit : https://bellavista.org.za/product-category/conference/