Reading is perhaps the most essential skill in our lives and can be the difference between life and death, especially with medications if one is illiterate or a label that is read wrongly! However, it is an entirely mental process. The eyes are only vehicles to the process of reading as the real reading is done inside the brain. This might sound obvious to both teachers and learners, but many teachers can be fooled by someone appearing to ‘read’ when they are not. For example, when a young child recognises the logo of McDonalds and shouts out the name excitedly, that child is not reading as such but linking the graphic logo with a stored memory of the name they actually heard that matched it.
In actual reading two other processes have to be involved: word recognition (pronunciation, meaning and linguistic role) and comprehension (collective meaning and appreciation). So the eyes might send information regarding printed words to the brain, but unless the brain is processing those words and truly understanding what they mean, the act of reading becomes meaningless or limited.
To offer greater reading support, there are two main aspects of development in reading that the most effective teachers work with to develop the better reading skills: word recognition and comprehension.
1. Word recognition
a. Phonemes: Word recognition begins at its simplest stage with the teaching of phonemes. These are the smallest unit of sounds that make up spoken words. For example, the word ‘man’ is made up of three phonemes m/a/n. By pronouncing each phoneme, then linking them together to make words, the reader becomes confident in recognising the components of words and how to use them collectively to make other words through phonemic awareness. Such an awareness can be demonstrated by, for example, students blending various phonemes to form real words, segmenting words into phonemes, being able to spot the difference when one sound is deleted or added to a word and using small groups rather than larger ones to allow children to work together and listen to each other. However, teaching phonemes by themselves are not as effective as teaching the alphabet alongside it so that readers not only understand phonemes but the system within which phonemes become important.
b. Repetition: By teachers encouraging readers to practise and repeat word sounds, especially through spelling, games and identification, they gradually develop the confidence and skill to recognise any word, especially as they are able to make new words too. This gradually builds a stronger brain connection around the information on words that are stored in the memory. Krashen (2001) and Stanovich (2000) found that, in a survey of elementary teachers and their reading classes, recurring reading is critical to the development of reading proficiency. As they noted, “Extensive practice provides the opportunity for readers to consolidate the skills. Their students did more guided reading, more independent reading, more social studies and science reading than students in less-effective classrooms”.
c. Fluency: By talking regularly to the teachers and their peers, using words to represent meanings in thought, perception and action, students develop quicker word recognition and greater fluency. The best teachers encourage, model, and support lots of talk across the school day to enable students to use their words as much as possible in meaningful and relevant ways. Such talk is more purposeful talk, not just chatter, and should be connected to to problem solving related to curricular topics. For example, the most effective way of recognising, learning and storing words in the classroom is a simple instructional sequence: the teacher poses a question, the student replies with an answer and the teacher confirms, corrects or adjusts the response. In simple terms, teachers created the oppotuntities, either through a student-teacher model or a peer to peer model, to use as many words as possible while absorbing their sounds, meanings and roles. This gradually develops both their fluency and reading skills.
d. Vocabulary: Word recognition is gradually advanced through development of vocabulary. There are four types of vocabulary: listening, speaking (oral), reading and writing. Vocabulary is important in word recognition because young readers use the pronunciations and meanings of words to help them recognise words they see in print. If an unfamiliar word is not in a reader’s oral vocabulary, he/she will have a difficult time recognising the word. Students need to see, hear, read, and write new words repeatedly, and in different contexts, to learn the words completely. Teachers should model how vocabulary can be used across the curriculum to help students understand the usefulness and practicality of advancing their vocabulary.
Most important, building a better vocabulary is one of the known ways of enabling fluency (rapid recognition) and accelerating literacy and that’s where books are paramount. Books that expose readers to more advanced words by stimulating their interest, their curiosity and their imagination are best for improving their vocabulary too because students will want to read more of them and put them into action. Vocabulary also plays an important role in comprehension thus students need lots of stimulating reading materials to become independent, proficient readers and to provide them with the experience of performing at higher levels of reading accuracy, fluency and comprehension. An extensive vocabulary is important because it helps the reader to communicate more empathetically and effectively. Not all books that a teacher might like will fire the students’ imagination, so to build better vocabularies, books must provide choice and inclusivity in order to satisfy diverse interests and cultures. The motivation for reading will either be boosted or lowered by the choice of books, an important point for teachers to bear in mind.
Reading comes into its own when the words make perfect sense to the reader, when they can be applied to everyday life and when they can be used in different contexts. Comprehension is about constructing accurate meaning by connecting what has been read to what the reader already knows and then showing that it is understood through general application. This is gained in two main ways: practical strategies and evaluation.
a. Practical Strategies: Teachers can aid comprehension through the tasks that are given around the words that are used and the books that are read, which provide students with frequent and multiple exposures to new words. For example, by providing diverse ways for students to work with new words, teachers help them to enhance their understanding of those words. Readers can be taught to associate new words with known words, to use new words in sentences that apply to them personally, to match definitions to new words, especially in fun game activities and to use new words in different contexts to show they understand the differences.
The best reading support teachers provide structured class or small-group discussions of the topic covered in a given text to allow everyone to benefit from the background knowledge of other students. Personal experience with a topic, or reading more extensively about the topic and sharing it with peers, can help others understand more of the topic being discussed. Teachers should also encourage students to apply what they know about a topic on their own initiative without waiting for formal assignments. Students then take ownership of their own learning which greatly aids their understanding.
Students should also be encouraged to react to the material by noting when any of the subject matter really resonates with them or trigger any significant memories. They should make notes about the connection which not only make the text more meaningful but add to the discussion around it. Note-taking can also be used as a tool to identify puzzling questions that might need to be answered later on, or specific words and phrases in the text that created any confusion.
b. Evaluation: Great teachers evaluate student work which is based on effort and improvement. Evaluation is one of the best ways of assessing reading comprehension because, being on their own and detached from their peers, readers have to rely on themselves and their own resources to both test their recall and apply reading matter to context. This focus means that all students have the opportunity to improve their reading purely through their own understanding of the subject matter. By having to recall what they read at regular intervals, or use their reading in different meaningful contexts, regular evaluation gives a better idea of which readers have comprehended a given text or word, and to what extent.
In the end effective teachers know how to blend these top two ingredients in the right proportions to meet the unique needs of each reader. Time is essential in reading because various research has shown that the more time is devoted to actual reading and writing, compared to other subjects, the more readers learn. Good teachers understand the roles of phonemic awareness and phonemes in building word-recognition skills and they know how to identify and correct students’ weaknesses in these areas. They also know how vocabulary and fluency facilitate comprehension and are continually building each student’s vocabulary through a variety of word-learning strategies. Finally, they fully appreciate that comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading instruction, and strive to help their students learn to apply appropriate learning strategies.