Reading Wars as Diversion

We have a wealth of educational research to assist us in the thoughtful planning and implementation of reading, writing, listening, speaking activities and programs in schools, at enrichment centres, and at home. The prevalent message is that literacy development is a multi-faceted process that takes place over time. That being said, the “Reading Wars” battleground, south of the border, has re-opened the quest for easy answers by cherry picking the research on reading and writing.

I recently coordinated a literacy program for young children. In talking to parents, I found myself doing something that I haven’t done for years. I poured sand into an empty glass vase to demonstrate this is NOT how children learn. More than ever, educators need to pause and move forward based on what they know about working with children and what comprehensive research tells us. It is not a simple process. It is a complex process impacted by the developmental level of the child, the mindset, as well as exposure to books and reading. Background experiences with reading are also paramount. I refer to this one as the “joy factor” and do profess to have any definitive scientific data to cite on this one, however I strongly adhere to the notion that children and adults who don’t like reading have never learned to read for different purposes or just not “met” the right books. Never underestimate an effective librarian, teacher who is a lover of books, or employee at Vancouver Kidsbooks in helping with this process!

Anyone who has worked extensively with teaching reading has experienced a child who flawlessly decodes the text and gives you a completely blank look when you ask about the meaning. Or perhaps heard the groan when you mention reading together. Understanding that authors have messages to convey is part of the process of reading Helping a child to make reading an enjoyable interaction between the child and the author is another important part of the instructional process.

Now, as always, there are four cueing systems in language development that are essential for communication. All four of these systems are used simultaneously as we speak, listen, read and write.

  1. Grapho-phonemic System –  the awareness of the sound system of the language represented by letters or combinations of letters.
  • Phonemes – the 44 sounds in English
  • We see this work when young children are writing their journal entries. They are connecting the sounds of the words they are saying with the letters they are writing on the page.
  • Graphemes  – the sounds represented by one or more letters
  • Phonological Awareness – understanding the sound structure of words including syllables, rimes and onsets
  • Sn– a-ck (Onset / rime)

Phonemic Awareness – to be able to combine phonemes to decode words.

h-o-t = hot

p-o-t = pot 

c-o-t = cot 

You can make a trip to Costco on any given day and pick up a workbook that includes pages and pages of repetitive exercises claiming to assist your child in mastering these skills. The reality is that many workbook activities can be completed by replicating a pattern instead of reading.

Word play, word building with magnetic letter, rhyming games, skipping songs, nursery rhymes, action games and song experience games, repeated readings of predictable pattern text can be more engaging ways to focus attention on the relationship between letters and sounds.  

2. Syntactic System – The roles of the structure and grammar of sentences.  

Modelling correct grammar and changing word endings (suffixes) or beginnings (prefixes) to change the meaning of words falls into this category.  Editing written work during the Writer’s Workshop is an excellent way to focus attention on this task.  I learned grammar in Grade 10 when I started to tutor. I could apply correct grammar in my writing before that point in time but I had not memorized all of the grammatical structures. The process of labelling grammatical structures made both me and my tutee better at parsing sentences. Actually helping him finish his assignments with questions and prompts as required made him a better writers.

Lessons about synonyms, antonyms, homonym and vocabulary development would fall into this category.

3. The Semantic System – Meaning Makers

In high school, a cousin I adored came to live with my Mum and I.  She decreed that we needed to improve our vocabulary.  Since she was two years older, I complied.  Every week a new word went on the fridge door.  Our task was to use it correctly as many times as possible during the week.  It became a fun game that I took with me into the classroom when I started to teach.  

Three noteworthy things came out of that game. One I my principals that he had never talked to kindergarten students with such good vocabularies. During one standardized test, my Gr. 3 students crossed out words and replaced them with better word choices. When my own children were in high school, both of them were tested and labelled “gifted”. My son’s analysis was that it was no more than an exercise in demonstrating a good vocabulary. His comment: “Not like we had a choice if we wanted to know what was going on.” The vocabulary development came out of a desire to communicate rather than a memory exercise.

4. The Pragmatic System –   This involves use of appropriate communication in social situations.   

The formality of the language used will likely change if you are talking to a boss, a principal in a hierarchical system, or a friend or close family member. Awareness of this fact will make a difference in how you are perceived in conversations. This is an example of pragmatics.

Lessons developing conversational skills, nonverbal communication (raising hand), adhering to social norms (personal space, volumes of conversation), empathy, active listening, and using humour appropriately fall under this area.  

How do you find the right term to describe literacy instruction that recognizes the complexity of the task, the importance of all of the component parts, and the role of a trained teacher in facilitating the instructional process?  

Whole language and balanced literacy were never terms or practices intended to exclude the grapho-phonemic system as an important aspect of reading instruction but efforts to acknowledge the synchronicity of all four cuing systems.   A focus on a “Reading War” seems to be a diversions from well established practices based on research that have brought solid results in places like Canada, Finland, Ireland, and Estonia.   Now is the time to step away from the battle for black or white answers, and work collaboratively to find the best answer to meet the needs of the younger learner sitting in front of you. There will never be one guaranteed quick and easy answer but we have learned enough to find a strategy that works for that child. The process may look different. It may take different amounts of time. It may require intervention by teachers trained with specialized skills. Yet, the OECD documents that it is happening all over the world due to the expertise we have developed based on comprehensive educational research practices.

Published by Carrie Froese

Curiosity guarantees a life of learning😀 Let me help you find the answer to your questions about educational practice, setting up a small business with a focus on education, and running a non-profit with a focus on educational events.

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