Tuesday, May 26, 2009

This thing called reading

Years ago Frank Smith was very popular with those who believed in holistic or experience based learning. A quick look at his book reassures me that his ideas make as much sense as ever.

I never really get involved with reading or literacy but it seems the 'default mode' for most primary teachers.

When you visit primary classrooms you become aware that the great part of the school day centres around literacy and numeracy. For all this emphasis reading still seem to be a problem for some students it ever was.

And to keep teachers on the straight and narrow there are those who see salvation in phonics waiting in the wings to distort the process even more. Schools have been deluged with 'best practice' ideas about how to run their literacy programmes.

And to make things even worse( or more serious) are the proliferation of reading tests to assess where students 'are at' all resulting in gathering and graphing data. Teacher are busy providing 'formative assessment and providing appropriate feedback.

Reading the most recent literacy book produced by the Ministry and it is enough for me to give up . As a result of all this 'expert' help teachers develop group system to ensure students are provided opportunities to learn to read. When I visit classrooms I observe what the groups, who are not with the teacher, are doing - most of it seem of doubtful value to me.

I am reminded of a UK commentator who said that the, 'evil twins of literacy and numeracy have gobbled up the entire curriculum'. Certainly in systems that nationally test their students this is further exaggerated and, as a result, in those countries teachers teach to the tests, and all too often, the arts and sciences etc are simply pushed out for lack of time.

And still children fail.

Sir Ken Robinson, an expert on creativity, has written that we are 'mining our children heads for two commodities, literacy and numeracy and, in the process, not realising the various gifts and talents that are being overlooked. Robinson believes that creativity is as important as literacy and numeracy. Another UK expert Guy Claxton writes that 'learnacy' ( the desire to learn) is more important than literacy and numeracy.

As for the most recent Ministry book on literacy teaching I was surprised that no reference is made to Frank Smith.Even more surprising there is no reference to Sylvia Ashton Warner and Elwyn Richardson both pioneers in getting young children to write and read naturally. Their approach was to tap the imagery of the children themselves as the basis for writing and reading. This language arts/experience approach was once a feature of New Zealand classroom but it seems to have been replaced by 'formulaic' 'best practice' teaching. The real need to tap the voices of the children, and to develop vocabulary through sensory experiences, is no longer common. Before the word must come the experience.

I think this lack of meaningful experiences is part of the problem and this brings me back to Frank Smith.

Frank Smith believes it is not difficult to make reading impossible. For children reading must be meaningful to attract them. What is being read must make sense to them or they won't bother and it seems some don't

The key to reading and writing lies in students seeing them as a valuable tools available to them to study what they are really interested in. What is required is for teachers to negotiate stimulating programmes that really engage their students. To do this they need to tap into the thought and personal experiences their children have. It is their stories that really count. Teachers also need to tap the interests and concerns students have and as well make use of first hand experience both inside the classroom and outdoors.

To learn like this require reading ,writing ,thinking and in turn learning.

Young children are born to learn.They are innately wired with the curiosity to want to learn and reading is just another form of learning.

Frank Smith believes that children do not need to be taught to read instead teachers need to create the conditions for them to want to. If reading is active process, that respects their ideas and worlds, they will want to join the reading club.

It is the same for learning anything

This Friday I present at a reading conference!

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