Reading comprehension in young learners can be accelerated by preparing for the task of reading the book, as though the novice reader and the teacher were about to go on a journey together. In planning for this adventure, pre-reading techniques, such as assessing what the student already knows, in terms of relevant vocabulary, introducing the subject area that the book will describe and then explaining anything that might be unfamiliar, are all strategies that will help to de-mystify the book and its contents and accelerate reading comprehension in students.
For young students, more specific essential pre-reading skills involve tasks that re-enforce the following key areas
A love and knowledge of the book and its various functions
Visual recognition of letter forms
An understanding of narrative
Aural (sound-based) discrimination between the smaller sounds that make up words.
The youngest child, as they enter school, has a vocabulary of between 2,000 and 5,000 words. New students may conceal their personal word-hoard behind a veil of shyness or anxiety, allowing their more confident or verbally agile peers to take centre stage, but a typical five year old knows the names of hundreds and hundreds of things. This prior learning is an invaluable resource when it comes to accelerating reading comprehension, because it is the extent of this vocabulary that will determine whether or not the book, and the world it describes, will be intelligible to the student. It is only logical then, that the first task of any teacher focused on promoting literacy skills is to make the classroom environment a place where students feel welcome, valued and safe enough to enrich their word-hoard by exchanging it appropriately with others.
A student’s vocabulary is stimulated and extended if the environment is also visually exciting. The young pre-reader has a mind developing at lightning speed and the classroom environment should aim to reflect this kind of dynamic and satisfy the most intellectually curious.
Above all, the classroom for pre-readers needs to be a place to promote a love affair with books an affair that will hopefully become a life-long commitment. For young learners, special Come Dressed as Your Favourite Book Character days and regular story-times, where the book’s refrain is chorused gleefully by the entire class, help to inspire this kind of devotion to the printed word. Encourage activities where the book as a physical object can be adored for its glorious illustrations, weighed, measured, smelt – maybe not tasted, but generally carefully examined, almost forensically. Encourage talk about the difference between fact and fiction, about books that carry information and books that are written to entertain. Vocabulary-hungry children love technical details, and they relish knowing about words to build on their prior learning, like frontispiece, binding, index and preface.
New readers love to make their own simple books where the story is told in pictures, illustrated by their own drawings, photographs and collaged images from magazines. The teacher can then reflect, and build on, the story that has been authored by the student by providing a few words beside or below these illustrations. In this way the images and texts are student-centred, are automatically relevant to the student’s world and much easier to comprehend.
A vital pre-reading strategy is to re-enforce the student’s knowledge of individual letterforms. Before any meaningful attempt can be made to de-code text, students need to be aware that the letters of the alphabet have a name and a sound. Resonate with the young student’s natural playfulness by promoting an awareness of printed letters and the alphabet through games and activities that promote visual acuity through matching and pairing. There are many pieces of software on the market that will do this, but try not to let children become addicted too early to the computer screen, especially the boys. Co-operative games in the real world have the additional value of helping to promote good social skills Cardboard letters of the alphabet, for example, can be hidden about the classroom while the children are out of the room in readiness for a treasure hunt. If the letters have a piece of Velcro or sandpaper on the reverse, they can be matched to an outline on a felt board, to reinforce their correct orientation. Later, whole words can be attached to the board, mixed up to create ‘silly sentences’, or matched with a picture.
Felt covered boards, of all shapes and sizes, are cheap and easy to make and fantastically useful for enhancing ideas about narrative, another essential pre-reading skill. An intuitive understanding of narrative gives students the ability to predict or foreshadow events, and this skill help to accelerate reading comprehension.
Narrating the sequence of events in traditional folk-tales illustrated by three cardboard bears, descending in size, and attached to the felt board with a scrap of sandpaper, delights children. They love to see the three little pigs hiding behind cardboard versions of their houses, which get “blown” off the felt board when the wolf arrives. The children can also spend many happy hours as they design their own cardboard characters for the felt board that they can then use to illustrate their own tales, in front of the class. The shyest student is much more comfortable exploring narrative this way than through speaking more directly to the class about what they did at the weekend. Puppets will do the same job, but 2D characters for felt boards are easier to make and require fewer resources.
For most students who have trouble with acquiring reading skills, the biggest challenge is an aural one, the ability to hear and discriminate between the smaller sounds in words. Encourage auditory discrimination through singing and playing rhyming games. This is where aliens from other planets come in very handy because it is common knowledge that they speak with pauses between the syllables. Invite a friendly alien (a more extrovert Dad, or willing student teacher, suitably dressed up, can work well) to spend some time in the class talking in robot-speak. The alien will need to be looked after and adopted, and its primitive knowledge of language, expressed in phrases such as I-am-loo-king-for-a-joo-see-ra b-bit, can be translated by children for the bewildered teacher. Children love the novelty of being in control.