An analysis of the way in which children learn to read and write, and the place of quality texts in supporting this. “Being able to read is the most important skill children will learn during their early schooling and has far-reaching implications for lifelong confidence and well-being. ”(Adonis & Hughes, 2007) Throughout history, different strategies and methods have been developed to aid learning to read and write. Classic styles (although still highly regarded) of writing children’s books including, rhyming, rhythm and repetition have been used consistently to support evolving children’s literacy (Lerer, 2009).
Newer methods such as synthetic phonics include developing the relationship between sounds and written word. This essay will highlight different strategies and methods that have been developed, and their effectiveness in developing a child’s literacy skills from a young age. McGee & Richgels talk about ‘each child’s journey through the wide and varied landscape of literacy development being unique’. They explain that ‘decoding, fluency, background knowledge, comprehension and motivation are essential in each child’s literary development (McGee & Richgels, 2003).
From the moment a child becomes aware of his/her surroundings, they will be aware of environmental print; “Environmental print refers to print that occurs in real life contexts- the signs, billboards, logos and functional print that saturate a child’s world” (Prior & Gerard, 2004:5). This allows the child to engage with the shapes and form of the words, without actually having an understanding of the meaning. Yetta Goodman describes this period as; ‘the roots of literacy’ (Goodman, 1980). Children will assign their own meanings to the marks, this shows they have engaged with the print and have decided what it means.
Shea explains Dolores Durkin’s paper ‘paper and pencil kids’, with regard to setting a stong foundation in literacy. She explains children’s ‘ideographic message drawings’ come first, followed by ‘scribbling’, these scribbles then evolve into ‘random letters’, and then eventually more conventional word forms. During this process children learn to decode their own words and the words of others. ‘Stepping into reading’ is easy for them, as they have already engaged with the forms of the print in meaningful ways (Shea, 2011).
Goodwin explains; Concept Books are special books designed to teach concepts such a colours, shapes, materials and animals to young children. Concept books have very few words (perhaps one per page), but very vivid and engaging pictures that allow the child to associate the words on the page with the illustration (Goodwin, 2008). Learning the alphabet is good example of where a well-made concept book could be used. Helen Oxenburys book; ABC of things is a perfect example of this, as each page has a different letter with a pleasing illustration, creating narrative interest within each picture.
Picture books can be used as an excellent resource in helping develop young children’s literacy. Goodwin explains that illustration in picture books ‘may be simply decorative’ but often aims to ‘interpret’ or ‘supply narrative meaning’ that isn’t accessible from the text alone. (Goodwin, 2008) A good picture book can be enjoyed by people of any age. “Anyone who has read picture books with very young children knows that they promote personal, detailed and exploratory talk as well as social or even raucous merriment” (Watson & Styles, 1996:1).
A good method of gauging children’s engagement with a picture book could be Aidan Chambers’ ‘Tell Me’ approach. Chambers explains that the tell me approach is about finding out about the readers experience with the books – ‘enjoyment, thoughts, feelings, memories’ and whatever the reader wisher to report. Thoughts are ‘honourably reported’ without risk of belittlement or rejection, which allows the teacher and reader to explore the book in explicit detail (Chambers, 1996).
Meek, in her book; ‘How Texts Teach What Readers Learn’, explains that although ‘good decoding’ and ‘good teachers’ help, texts themselves play a very important role in teaching children to be readers, rather than people that can merely read (Meek, 1988). Goodwin talks about introducing children to ‘intertextual thinking’. She names books such as Pat Hutchin’s; ‘Rosie’s Walk’ and Janet Ahlbergs; ‘Each Peach Pear Plum’, to illustrate her point that a text can mean more than the words themselves (Goodwin, 2008). “Part of the joy of reading literature is revelling In the language that authors use” (Goodwin, 2008:25).
As well as pictures, literary language can be utilised to create narrative interest for a child learning to read. Studies have shown that; “Children’s early (preschool) sensitivity to rhyme and alliteration is an extremely powerful indicator of their eventual success in learning to read (Perfetti et al, 1997:226). Cook writes about rhyme in literacy in becoming literate; He says that in the ‘early stages’ rhymes ‘draw attention to linguistic structures’, and at a later stage provide a ‘pleasurable halfway house between language as sound and language as the vehicle of relatively precise meaning’ (Cook, 200:26).
A good example of rhyme and rhythm in literature is ‘Tanka Tanka Tanka’ by Steve Webb. Goodwin (2008) explains the ‘strong rhythmic pattern’ leads the reader to ‘respond with dance’. He talks about the rhythm of the language drawing the reader in, taking the literature ‘beyond the cognitive’ (Goodwin, 2008). As well as rhyme and rhythm, repeating texts have been used to engage children with literacy. “Repetition increases the strength of neural connections. Reading the same book to children repeatedly serves to reinforce familiar words” (Wolfe & Nevills, 2004:45).
A perfect example of a repeating text is ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’ By Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. Goodwin talks about ‘the great joy of the book’ for the young readers. She explains the way the language ‘mirrors the experiences of the story’, saying that the repetition makes children ‘compelled to join in’ (Goodwin, 2008:24). Not only is good literary language important when considering children coming to grips with literacy, but the type of book you choose. Considering what the child is interested in when choosing your book will help when you come to read it.
Traditional books which follow themes such as; fairy stories, folk tales, legends and myths or dragons. Meek talks of fairy stories being ‘genuine children’s literature’. She explains there are ‘deep and abiding links between the childhood of mankind as preserved in these stories and the early life of each of us’ (Meek, 1982:36). Goodwin writes about traditional stories challenging ‘accepted notions of good and evil, of family structure and of relationships’. Stories such as ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Billy Goats Gruff’, are good examples of stories about overcoming evil.
Goodwin also makes the point that ‘values, beliefs and practices are passed on’ through traditional stories, helping children ‘become part of history’ and understand ‘how and why things come to them’ (Goodwin, 2008). Familiarity with well-known literature may allow children to explore how stories work. Patterns start to emerge in traditional literature; usually following an introduction, events, problems, resolution style. This could be highly beneficial when children come to write (or tell) their own stories. Other types of books, which help children engage with literature, are factual books.
“Factual books, linking in with other areas of their work, help to extend their (children’s) experiences and knowledge (Hobart & Frankel, 2005:88). For the other part of this module we were tasked with writing a children’s book, using strategies we had studied that help children become literate. I took a non-fiction/fiction approach to my own book, using facts about different animals and their respective habitats, combined with a fictional plot, involving space ships and giant animals. This may result in the child engaging with the ‘story’ and the colourful pictures as well as learning actual facts about the animals involved.
“Probably no other aspect of reading instruction is more discussed, more hotly debated, and less understood than phonics” (Strickland, 1998:5). What is phonics? The American National Reading Panel describes synthetic phonics as; “Those that emphasise teaching students to ‘convert letters (graphemes) into sounds (phonemes)’ and then to ‘blend’ the sounds to form ‘recognisable words’. Analytic phonics, on the other hand is taken to refer to larger unit phonics programmes, that introduce children to whole words before teaching them to analyse these into their component parts, and emphasise the larger sub-parts of words (i. e., onsets, rimes, phonogrammes and spelling patterns) as well as phonemes” (Wyse & Styles, 2007:35).
“A review of the teaching of early reading in England commissioned by the UK Government recommended that synthetic phonics should be the preferred approach for young English learners. In response, all English schools have been told to put in place a discrete synthetic phonics programme as the key means for teaching high-quality phonic work” (Wyse & Goswami, 2008:691). In 2006, Jim Rose, the Secretary of State for Education for England, produced his report recommending that synthetic phonics must be included in early reading instruction.
This decision caused uproar among academics and professionals, as evidence has shown that the Rose Report’s recommendation for synthetic phonics contradicts a large body of evidence over the last 30 years (Wyse & Styles, 2007). The Clackmannanshire studies are a perfect example of this contradiction. In 2004 research into synthetic phonics was carried out in Clackmannanshire, Scotland. It was promoted a great deal by the media, which resulted in a recommendation by England’s Education Select Committee that there should be an enquiry into the teaching of reading through synthetic phonics. (Wyse & Styles, 2007).
However, a spokesperson from the Clackmannanshire study stress that the report was not intended to initiate synthetic phonics ‘taking over’ reading strategies, but to show the advantages of using it alongside other established literacy strategies (Johnson & Watson, 2005). One of Synthetic phonics’ critics, Margret Meek, suggested that phonics is ‘highly inefficient’, ‘full of traps’ and ‘does not account for the individual learner’.
She also highlights the idea that without enjoyment, emotion and engagement, reading will seem ‘insignificant’ to a child, and separating this could lead to children seeing reading as a task, rather than a lifelong skill (Meek, 1982:75/76). “Reading is about reading comprehension and not ‘barking out words’ (Edessa, 2011:11)”. Evidence here highlights the need for a broader literacy strategy spectrum, not just one system designed for all, as a lone focus on a single strategy could cause a child to lose focus in his/her studies.
Waterland was critical of phonics, saying reading could only be learned by children working together with competent readers using what she coined the ‘apprenticeship approach’ (Waterland, 1985) The ‘immersion in literacy’ or ‘top down approach’ is a strategy that has been used in the past to teach reading and writing to children, and is a child centered approach which does not emphasize skill (Cohen & Cowen, 2007). The top down approach typically starts with children sitting with a parent, older sibling, carer or caretaker reading a book together.
In this setting children will learn not only about reading, but also about print and language. They also learn reading is easy, enjoyable and fun. It allows the child to ‘read’ and understand the meaning without decoding every word in the story (Cohen & Cowen, 2007). Hinkel Writes “The top down processing involved contextual factors such as sociocultural knowledge and task assessment of producing or interpreting the discourse of the task” (Hinkel, 2005:733). This suggests that a learner engaging with a top down approach may draw on other areas of knowledge, not specifically limited to the topic.
This may lead to a more holistic development of a literacy beginner. Vygotsky describes each school experience as a ‘complex cultural activity’ (Vygostsky, 1978:11), It has been discussed that the bringing together of synthetic phonics and top down approaches would be a superior method of introducing children to the complex cognitive process of successful reading. I believe that combining the top down and bottom up (phonics) approaches needs of all students would be met, and could also lead to a future with reading and enjoying text, rather than merely reciting meaningless words.
It may also benefit teachers, as teachers that are given freedom to promote literature and reading in the classroom could create interest in reading and literacy, instead of merely reading instructions from flashcards. This, in turn, may increase the quality of education in that respective classroom. Cohen & Cowen talk about ‘the balanced approach’; “The balanced approach allows teachers to literally take advantages from both the top-down and bottom-up approaches to meet the needs of all students” (Cohen & Cowan, 2007:60).
In this essay I have highlighted the diverse, child-centered approaches designed to help children learn to read and write; Picture books, with their vivid illustrations creating meaning and exploration of early literacy. Rhyming and repeating texts, allowing children to draw meaning and reinforce words. Traditional books, with their classic story forms and characters, allow children to understand how stories are formed, which may help when they come to write their own.
Evidence suggests that a take over of synthetic phonics may not be the best option, as I feel it gives children a one-dimensional view of literacy. I feel, combing the two approaches to create a curriculum that focuses on integrating the ‘sounding out’ phonic approach with the whole book, ‘real book’, comprehensive approach, will create a stronger bond with phonemic awareness and lingual fluency in children. This could promote literacy being part of a more cultural experience, and in turn may increase literacy levels across our nation.