Lots of children learn to read well despite very poor or minimal teaching. I think I was probably one of those children. I don’t think my mum ever listened to me read but somehow I now read fluently. I remember seeing my big sister chuckling over an Enid Blyton and feeling jealous because I couldn’t read and then I remember being able to read Blyton myself. I think I must have read constantly from about the age of six to twelve only surfacing for school lessons. With my sister I spent every Saturday in the children’s section of the local library. I had a long walk home from school and I would hitch my bag straps over my forehead to allow me to read my latest volume as I dawdled along the pavement.
At first sight my experience does seem to suggest that motivation provides the key to growing a strong reader and that is certainly the assumption of our schools. I disagree.
There are, in fact, many factors that make it more likely that children will read well, the area is very well researched, but perhaps the most crucial factor tends to be overlooked – bulk practice. Surely, you may say, we all know children need to read lots. Schools bend over backwards to encourage children to read lots. I’m not so sure we really DO appreciate the importance of bulk practice for reading fluency OR that we do the right things to ensure that this practice happens.
At the heart of the problem is the faulty supposition that the only lever teachers have is exhortation. The assumption seems to be that we must persuade our children that reading is fun and if they won’t listen we just throw our hands up and bewail the situation or embark on ever more elaborate campaigns to entice reluctant readers to open a book. Motivation is important. We do want to ensure our children have good role models, attractive environments and great reading options. Schools are right to ensure these elements are in place. I think though that we forget that it is not motivation that grows a reader – it is reading that grows a reader – bulk reading. The world renowned reading researcher Keith Stanovich calls this the ‘Matthew Effect’.
It is true that I was motivated to read but that is hardly surprising when you consider that my unusual childhood involved no computer screens, no television, no after school activities; nothing to provide higher gratification than I could gain, aged six, from puzzling out the letters that let me into the world of St Clare’s and the hilarious tricks the girls played on their French mistress. I had nothing ‘better’ to do and so I read in bulk. Can we simply cross our fingers that children today, faced with a plethora of instant forms of gratification, will be persuaded to persist with a book?
One way or another children need to read enough words in a day, a week, a month, a year, to attain fluency. As Quirky Teacher pointed out in a recent blog, at primary level the typical group reading sessions involve very little sustained reading (see here also). At secondary levels teachers try and cut the amount of reading in lessons, using other mediums to make the subject learning more accessible. Thus in the average school day a child does not encounter anything like the number of words they need to read to become fluent readers. To be blunt, currently the education provided through school alone is not adequate to create fluent readers.
The fascinating work of the late Jeanne Chall suggests this drive for accessibility has been very counterproductive. She found that in America schools had been gradually reducing the reading age of subject textbooks to make learning more accessible which correlated with a decline in reading ages. Chall suggested that, as children were less challenged, the reading ages of children gradually dropped, creating a negative spiral in which textbook publishers continued to lower the challenge of text to keep up with the falling reading age of the students.
Children need to read lots because the vast majority of the vocabulary children encounter in text is not used in everyday speech. Written communication follows different conventions to the spoken word. However, even those children who do enjoy some David Walliams aren’t therefore being exposed to more academic forms of writing which build the stamina for engaging with more abstract texts that children will need if they are to succeed academically (as I explain here.) For this they need to engage with the more academic forms of writing they should repeatedly encounter at school.
Whatever children may choose to read should be a bonus. Something as crucial as reading fluency should not be dependent on whether we can cajole children to read for pleasure. In their schooling they should encounter enough text, fiction and subject based, at the right level of challenge, to ensure they progress towards becoming fluent readers. This may be partly through initiatives like ‘Drop Everything And Read’ although for weaker readers this won’t help –they need more time reading with an adult. Not much of this bulk reading should be in maths or PE lessons BUT sustained reading should be a normal part of most lessons – including science, geography, business and RE etc. At one school (which many on the blogosphere may have heard of it) children read ten thousand words a day. I’ll repeat that with emphasis TEN THOUSAND WORDS A DAY! I think we can rest assured that Michaela school is growing fluent readers! I’d suggest that in most schools children don’t come anywhere near this total. When children present as struggling readers it would be interesting to investigate just how much bulk practice they have had in the past. I’d bet quite a lot that it was not very much!
For a very clear and more detailed outline of the problems of primary see this.