Learning to Love Reading

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.

Educational Leadership Magazine

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.

News Literacy for Discerning Students

Here’s an interesting US article about a programme being run there to help students to understand how to deal with the vast amount of information and data available to them through the internet.

Edutopia Article – Media Literacy

I have one major reservation – should it be journalists who are tasked with helping children to cut through the verbiage put out often by …… journalists?

It is often suggested that in an effective democracy the media represents the fourth critical estate, after the elected government, the civil services and the judiciary. One of the most important tasks of the fourth is to help the people to understand the behaviours and actions of the first three.

However, we see for ourselves with the whole debate on ‘paid news’ (where again the media are trying to tell us what we should think of the media!).

I will always remember a fascinating case study from the time when i was studying information and Communication Law.

UK newspapers, especially the tabloids started reporting cases of dogs biting people, especially children. Within weeks, the tabloid papers were carrying full page lurid photographs of childish innocence marred by vicious facial bites.

The effect was to create an impression that suddenly, over night, dogs had become an out of control menace and no child was safe – as if this terrible thing had just started to happen.

Before long there were local politicians in reported constituencies responding to vociferous demands for action by committing to bring debate and legislation in the parliament. The newspaper editors salivated as they reported on the “public demands” for immediate action, protesters in the streets and outside parliament.

Within weeks hurried legislation was pressed on to the busy parliament timetable and passed with all party support (nobody dared oppose it or question it). The result was that, over night, it became illegal to walk a dog, even on a lead, without it wearing a muzzle. strict punishments of owners, confiscation of pet dogs and compulsory killing of the dogs became the norm.

Within a few more weeks the media were there to tell the public what terrible legislation this was. Now, the front pages were full of heart-rending stories of little old ladies who wept as their dogs were put to sleep – their only crime being forgetfullness to put the muzzle on their dog.

The media had ‘created’ the first story, conjured up a percieved emergency, rallied public frenzy and political pressure leading to weak, irrational and badly drafted legislation. Then they were there to point out the inept outcomes for all. The public were left scratching their heads, wondering how all this could have happened.

So, education systems fail to prepare citizens adequately for the world if they fail to pay adequate attention to media literacy and the thinking skills necessary to be discerning about information. The issue then becomes finding the best way to incorporate this vital learning in to the curriculum for school children.

Tragic, But Not Unexpected

Here are two articles that highlight some of the most tragic consequences of the inertia and failure of relevance in school education today.

BBC Article – UK
French Article

Sometimes there has to be an ability to gt some distance from an issue to see it holistically. It is also vitally important to learn from others experiences if there’s even the slightest chance that they point towards a future that nobody would want to see.

Here we have French teachers believing that classroom violence is because of a lack of staff in schools. If we just had more staff we could ‘control’ the situation in the classrooms. How can anything of real value be learned in an environment that is sustained through ‘control’ and survival? How can this lead to children growing up with a healthy, positive attitude to learning?

The UK teachers want to just believe that if they learn self defence they can maintain something like ‘control’ in their classrooms and schools.

I firmly believe that neither are the answers. Schools exist as a microcosm of the society in which they operate to some degree. Educators can’t necessarily right all the wrongs of society. However, what they can do is make the experiences in schools humanistic, relevant and meaningful in ways that actually give youngsters a sense of ownership, a recognition of why they should want to spend time in that place and what it can offer them.

Is it all too much to hope for, or are we all too locked in to ‘the game’? Also, how long might it take before similar debates start to take place in the corridors of Indian schools. How long can we rely on ‘family values’, Indian cultural respect for elders etc. to prevent our schools turning inexorably in the same direction?

Nothing Surprising?

The attached article might be considered embarrassing for me – except, I don’t work in UK education but in Indian education with very good reason!!

NDTV Education Story

There is no question in my mind, some things have gone horribly wrong in the UK education system. When aspirational Asian families bring their children in to that broken system, the problems become really stark and clear for all to see. The asian children will, inevitably excel in relative terms and outperform.

One danger is that those aspirational levels are already beginning to get muted and influenced by what CK Prahalad calls ‘Affluenza’.

The challenge for us may actually be to see how many people can ride the high aspiration, high effort wave most effectively before we finish up having to deal with the same issues as teachers in the affluent ‘developed’ countries.

Whatever, the long term will have to be about moving education to a new level of relevance, something that learners are willing and prepared to engage with.

%d bloggers like this: