Tuesday 28 June 2016

Reading: 2 Things All Parents and Teachers Must Do

An excerpt from 'To Kill A Mockingbird':

"...she discovered that I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste. Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading.'Teach me?' I said in surprise. 'He hasn't taught me anything, Miss Caroline. Atticus ain't got time to teach me anything,' I added, when Miss Caroline smiled and shook her head. 'Why, he's so tired at night he just sits in the living-room and reads.'

'If he didn't teach you, who did?' Miss Caroline asked good-naturedly. 'Somebody did. You weren't born reading The Mobile Register.'

'Jem says I was.'

Miss Caroline apparently thought I was lying. 'Let's not let our imaginations run away with us, dear,' she said. 'Now you tell your father not to teach you any more. It's best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I'll take over from here and try to undo the damage - '


'Your father does not know how to teach.'

I mumbled that I was sorry and retired meditating upon my crime. I never deliberately learned to read but somehow I had been wallowing illicitly in the daily papers. In the long hours of church - was it then that I learned? I could not remember not being able to read hymns. Now that I was compelled to think about it, reading was something that just came to me, as learning to fasten the seat of my union suit without looking around, or achieving two bows from a snarl of shoelaces. I could not remember when the lines above Atticus's moving finger separated into words, but I had stared at them all the evenings in my memory, listening to the news of the day, Bills To Be Enacted into Laws, the diaries of Lorenzo Dow - anything Atticus's happened to be reading when I crawled into his lap every night.

Perhaps this post is not about Miss Caroline as teacher, but Atticus's Finch as unwitting teacher - or maybe he knew exactly what he was doing. Remember, what we read here is only Scout's childish reflections on how she learnt to read; children often don't realise when they are being taught. But her reflections are nonetheless revealing and thought-provoking. We see, from Scout's point of view, Atticus doing two things: modelling reading and sharing reading.

Modelling: Scout believes that Atticus is 'so tired at night he just sits in the living-room and reads.' It may be true but what Scout doesn't realise is that she is immensely privileged to be brought up in   a home where books and other reading materials are a central part of life. In the Finch household  reading is normal. It is not particularly celebrated, it is not done as a special occasion (although we do see that occasions spent reading are special to Scout), it is not enforced. This is the true model of reading for pleasure. There are multiple passing mentions in 'To Kill A Mockingbird' of the children reading as part of their daily routine, without it even being encouraged. In their house there is a reading culture.

There is a clear challenge for parents as well as teachers here: daily reading, at home and at school, needs to be normal. If it is, our children, like Jem and Scout, are far more likely to be natural readers.

Sharing: Of course, merely seeing Atticus read and copying the motions of reading (sitting with a book, turning pages etc) does not enable Scout to read but sitting with him whilst he reads aloud and points to the words does. Atticus goes beyond modelling to sharing, not only making reading normal but also showing how it is done. The fact that Scout, a fictional child, appears to have learned to read by these means could easily be contested - certainly not every child could learn that way. But the principle of sharing reading is an important one regardless.

Throughout the book, Jem and Scout feel at liberty to ask their father questions about meanings of words and events. There is no doubt that, during these shared reading sessions, Scout asked such questions, giving Atticus the opportunity to share not only the decoding of the words but also the understanding of the words in their context.

It is so important for parents and teachers to model and share the thoughts and understanding of a competent reader: the links they are making, the questions they are asking, the meaning they are deriving, the jokes they are getting, the emotions they are feeling. This can all happen within anything from a whole-class reading session to a parent and child encounter on the sofa at home.

On the flip side of this, we adults need to be very careful about the many habits we may be unwittingly promoting to the children around us. Where reading is concerned if we aren't seen reading, if we don't explain word meaning, if we never discuss books and stories then we are subliminally passing on negative message to the children around us. We need to be deliberate about our actions as everything we do sends a message. Much decent teaching can be undermined if the overall culture of a school or home is at odds with what is being taught.

We must not expect children to be able to read (decoding or understanding), or to enjoy reading, if we are not modelling and sharing reading. And if we are not modelling and sharing reading, are we really teaching reading at all?

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