The March edition of the Educational Leadership online magazine is on the topic of reading. As more and more educators worry about the increasing propensity for children to lose interest in reading (or never establish an interest in the first place) this is a majorly important topic in education.
I believe the emphasis being placed on ‘Reading to Learn’ rather than ‘Learning to Read’ is the right approach. However, I have some concerns with some of the methods being proposed.
It is quite common to see educators advocating various methodologies than entail children slowing down their approach to reading, focussing in a detailed way on words, sentences, structures etc. as for example in the article by Thomas Newkirk. His main argument is that this way more focus will go on comprehending and appreciating texts.
I believe we have to have the issue of reader motivation foremost in our minds. Today’s children spend a lot of time watching television. Through this medium a fully structured story – beginning, middle and end with fully developed characters – is delivered effortlessly (on the part of the recipient) in half an hour. Now, when it comes to maintaining a child’s interest how is a book to compete with that?
Here in India, through teaching English I have interacted with hundreds of students ranging from those with little or no English ability to advanced users of the language. Invariably, i have found that as readers they either vocalised or at least sub-vocalised. This means that in order to read they are turning the writing in to a stream of sound that they then listen to as their own voice, either actually out loud or in their mind.
We all can speak at up to 150 words per minute. However, if you just stop and think for a moment how long, at that speed, it will take to even read a modest sized children’s novel I believe we can all see immediately how books will struggle to hold a child’s interest.
When I was around 15 (a very long time ago!), every student in my school was put through a Rapid Reading programme. We developed skills to read ‘whole phrases’ and visually. The result was that all of us were reading above 200 words a minute and quite a few above 300. A doubling of reading speed did not lead to any loss of comprehension – in fact frequently comprehension was actually better.
One argument offered for this is that the human mind can potentially process thousands of words a minute. The less the words being taken in through reading the more the scope for getting distracted away from the page (rather like novice meditators).
I believe that the faster a person is reading, the greater their ability to take in the book, article, chapter etc. as a whole, to sense the intention in its entirety. If you want to read for nuance or to savour individual words, phrases or sentences this can be done as a separate process afterwards.
Motivation is vital. it is known that children who grow up in homes surrounded by books are far more likely to be strong readers. This, I believe, is another part of motivation – they have a desire to acquire the skills to join in an activity they perceive is normal, fruitful, rich and rewarding. I doubt that the possibility to really analyse someone’s written thoughts in great detail, slowly and thoughtfully, will act as an effective motivator for most young children.
I believe there’s a potential reader in every child. If they grow up to not be a reader then as educators and parents we have to look at our own actions and take the blame – somewhere along the way things we did/ didn’t do killed the motivation and the desire to fulfil their potential as a reader.