Education Viewpoint: Faster speeds for learner readers

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The Independent Online
Learning to read is an infinite, continuous life-long process, not a brief event that takes place at primary school to be quickly and thankfully ticked off the list before you dash on to the next thing.

It's like learning to drive. When you pass your test you've been taught the basics but you are still a clumsy, raw recruit who needs to get freely out on to the road and learn to drive properly. New readers face a similar challenge. They can do it but it is not yet second nature. And it will only become so through routine daily practice.

Many young people never learn to read other than alarmingly slowly. Fourteen- and 15-year-olds who should long since have become motorway readers carry the same book around with them in school for weeks.

They wade laboriously through a page or two under supervision when asked to, but, clearly, attention to the mechanics dominates and there is little engagement with content. It's rather like my trying to read a page of Balzac in French, without my glasses: possible, but painfully pedestrian.

The child stranded in this limited position with a book will inevitably turn to television or video because it's faster and easier.

If children are to become 'natural' readers - and at present tens of thousands fail ever to do so - their reading must be systematically developed and speeded up. No fluent reader, for example, slowly 'sub-vocalises' or reads aloud in his head, mentally articulating every word - other than deliberately if it's something exceptionally complex.

But many young (and adult) readers never get beyond the sub-vocalising stage, which is why they're so slow. When seven- or eight-year-olds read 'to themselves' you can sometimes see their lips moving. This should be a brief developmental stage, not the end of reading achievement.

A GCSE student told me the other day that it had taken her three months to read Gone with the Wind. Think how few books she will read in her life if she doesn't learn to trot rather than crawl through the printed word. Someone who reads so little is bound to be hesitant in expression, short on vocabulary and lacking in general knowledge. This girl scores highly in reading tests. She can read well enough - but her reading has failed to develop.

The answer for children lies in giving them dozens of accessible books quickly, and plenty of time and encouragement both at school and at home to read them, as soon as basic de-coding skills are secure. It probably means deliberate restriction of television exposure time, too.

Such intensive, concentrated practice is a vital route to fluency, which, once established, will give access to

increasingly more demanding books.

The rapid reading skills of scanning and skimming are now prescribed in the national curriculum but few of the secondary pupils I encounter can read in either of these ways.

It is also crucial that children perceive the reading of books as an ordinary part of adult behaviour. Children emulate adults. I frequently hear teachers and parents complaining that children won't read. In the next breath these same adults are either explaining that they themselves are too busy to read and/or discussing at length the previous evening's television programmes. Unmistakable messages are being transmitted to children.

Children need to see teachers reading, too. In a daily quiet reading session the teacher should have a book - not marking or preparation or anything else which suggests that 'just' reading is all right for children but there are more important things for adults to do.

Learning to read doesn't stop at primary/secondary transfer either. It doesn't even end when you leave school, but should go on throughout life. Sadly the ability to read can atrophy if not regularly exercised - like the ability to type, swim, run or play the violin.

Teaching children to read is just the beginning. It's what happens in subsequent years which makes or mars them as real readers.

Susan Elkin teaches English in a secondary school.