Margaret Meek gives her views on Learning to Read
Some children learn to read before they go to school: some never need a single reading lesson: others progress slowly: some isolated people remain illiterate all their lives. The individual differences of children are both perplexing and intriguing, so that researchers into the processes of learning are naturally attracted to reading. Their expertise fills many books, mostly written for teachers and mostly about reading failure. Yet we have still not discovered the best means of helping all children to learn.
A great deal of thoughtful research has concentrated on ways of teaching reading. Most of it is designed to reassure teachers about the class teaching of reading and to offer advice about teaching thirty children in one room. The unhappy effect of the pronouncements of reading experts is to make both teachers and parents uneasy by distinguishing certain kinds of reading failure. Before a child goes to school he doesn’t really know he can fail. Parents rarely fail to teach their children what they want them to learn. Their parents have already taught them all the things that make them human- to smile, to walk, to talk and to take part in conversations, to meet people, and to feed and wash themselves. At first, reading seems to be another natural activity. Then, as school approaches, it suddenly becomes strange, something to be learned in a different way, in a different place, so parents quickly forget how many things their children have successfully learned with their help.
Anxiety and failure
Now parents look to the experts, the teachers and the reading specialists. and become anxious in case their child may not `get on’ in school. A ‘reader’ is no longer a child or a person who reads, but a special kind of reading book. There is also a special jargon for reading progress which is judged not by the books children are able to read and enjoy, but by a stage on a chart or a scale. Before long, parents feel that reading is so special a skill as to be unnatural, like Olympic gymnastics or playing a violin in the Albert Hall at seven. They are often surprised to learn that teachers, faced in their turn by other experts, are equally worried and confused.
The victim of all this anxiety is, of course, the child.
For the last twenty years I have been a parent, with children at school, a teacher of reading to both children and adults, and a lecturer involved in research into the nature of the reading process. As a parent I have often been puzzled by my children’s reading progress. As a teacher I have confronted stony-faced seven-year-olds, aggressive adolescents, and nervous adults for whom learning to read and write seemed an insurmountable barrier. When I came to be a teacher of reading teachers I discovered that, while much extensive research revealed no more than common sense would assume, it also offered a great deal of help and encouragement from which everyone could profit. I have seen a sensitive student achieve as much in a reading lesson as a seasoned veteran in remedial teaching, and I have observed how delight in a simple story well told can bring more success to a child than the most carefully graded reading scheme. At the same time, I have seen parents show all the signs of distress as they pushed their children towards books. I have watched teachers fail for want of genuine knowledge about reading, including the child’s view of what reading is all about. And I have learned, painfully sometimes, that parents, teachers and reading experts can achieve most if they collaborate and co-operate on the child’s behalf. A parent needs the teacher’s expertise to tell him how the child’s progress compares with that of others over a period of time. A teacher who hears a child read every day does it for such a short time that practice at home is always necessary. Both profit from the expert’s understanding of what reading is – compared with talking and writing, for instance. Above all. each needs the trust and confidence of the others, land an understanding that] readers are made by reading books and enjoying them.
To learn to read, children need the attention of one patient adult, or an older child, for long enough to read something that pleases them both. A book, a person, and shared enjoyment: these are the conditions of success. The process should begin at an early age and continue as a genuine collaborative activity until the child leaves school. Understanding the reading process may help, but there is nothing so special about it that any interested adult cannot easily grasp it by thinking about why he or she enjoys reading.
If this is so, why are there reading problems and problem readers? Adults forget how they learned to read; only unsuccessful readers remember the details of their struggles. Once we have learned to read, we stop worrying about whether we can do it or not. We may even read much less than before. It is possible, even in a literate society, to read and write very little. Being able to read when you have to is one thing: doing a lot of it when you don’t have to is another. Reading takes time, and nowadays most people are generally much more sociable than in the past when solitary private reading was more common. We have to understand the difficulty children now have when there are so many demands that their lives should be socially motivated. They will read well and may enjoy the activity, sometimes choosing to do it in preference to many other enjoyable things. They will not enjoy it just because adults tell them reading is important. To be fully convinced, they have to find books they like and to see adults and other children reading for pleasure.
But it is still true that reading is very much bound up with school and the academic performance of the individual. Teachers cannot help favouring good readers; they make classroom life easier. They seem to progress more quickly because they learn for themselves. In the same way, teachers like to think that their teaching method works. A teacher and a child who confirm each other form a creative partnership. In our social system literacy is the way to success. Those rites of initiation into a society – the examinations – favour the literate, and most jobs require special reading skills. Every teacher worth her salt wants her pupils to be competent and sensitive readers. So how can parents, teachers and reading experts meet and make the collaborative job of helping a young reader, especially a beginner, a pleasant and profitable undertaking?
When reader meets writer
I make four basic assumptions. First, that reading is an important thing to do. Without this conviction nothing can happen. It is also important to realize that not all the electronic media in the world will replace what happens when a reader meets a writer. Reading is far more than the retrieval of information from a collection of printed records. It is the active encounter of one mind and one imagination with another. Talk happens: the words fly, remembered or not. Writing remains; we read it at our own pace, which is the rate of our thinking. Real reading cannot be done without thought. As it is a kind of ‘inner speech’, it is bound to have a marked effect on the growth of the mind of the reader. When your child is learning, or has learned, to read, his thinking is changing in a remarkable way. We often don’t notice, because, like all successful development in children and in ourselves, we take it for granted. Can you really imagine what life would be like if you had never learned to read? The social disadvantages – not being able to read street signs or the notices in the post office – are easy to understand. But what about the encounters with new ideas, and the ways we confront ourselves, and society, and our view of life. even when we seem to be doing nothing more sophisticated than reading a novel? We are at home in the world to the extent that we discover there are other people like ourselves, and reading is one of the most significant ways of doing this.
The importance of how and what
My second assumption is that reading is learned by reading. This is not so simple as it sounds, but it is absolutely fundamental. Right from the start the learner has to behave as if he meant to become a reader. The helping adult must confirm him in this role by treating the beginner as a serious apprentice. The biggest mistake we make is in giving the five-year-old the notion that you learn to read by a series of exercises, like scales in music, and then you are rewarded with a ‘real’ book or ‘real’ reading in another form. The children who teach themselves to read do it by turning the pages of books and looking at the pictures long before they tackle the print. When they focus their attention on the print it is because they want to know the story and to tell it to themselves.
The third assumption is the crucial one: that what the beginning reader reads makes all the difference to his view of reading. For very young beginners, reading is a kind of play, something you do because you like it. Gradually you discover it’s a specially good kind of play, less trouble than dressing up, but just as exciting for imagining you are someone else and somewhere else. Real readers discover how to be more than themselves. The natural way to do this is to sink into a story. Ask yourself where you are when you read a novel and you will see what I mean.
[Then, lastly, I assume] that teaching and learning, to be successful, must be genuinely shared. In the early stages of helping children to learn anything, the adult has to do a great deal. You see this clearly as children learn to talk, when, right from the start, the learner takes part in real conversation – even by making noises in response to something said to him. Gradually the nature of the sharing changes and becomes more a matter of taking turns. So with reading and writing. A mother looking at a picture book with a four-year-old who is telling her a story about it is doing something essentially the same as a university tutor discussing a text with a student.
What is reading for?
I believe that every child now in school, or about to go there, should have the opportunity and the help to become as fully literate as he can. By this I mean several things that extend our understanding of learning to read and write far beyond the idea that these are basically useful skills. We all need the kind of literacy that makes us un-worried by the notices at a bus stop, the instructions on a packet or even the writing on an airline ticket. No one should be victimized by our print-dominated world, obliged to believe all he reads or to buy everything he sees advertised. To be literate, in the civic or material sense of belonging to a literate society, is to be able not only to read but also to question the authority of even the most official-looking document that makes demands on us. It is as important to understand the notice about the rates as it is to pay the bill.
But literacy doesn’t begin and end in the official sphere of social contracts. It concerns us as people who create our culture, in all its variety and complexity. Good readers are more than successful print-scanners and retrievers of factual information. They find in books the depth and breadth of human experience. Think of all that you would never have experienced if you had not learned to read. Readers are at home in the life of the mind; they live with ideas as well as events and facts. They understand a wider range of feelings by entering into those of other people. They are free to choose one kind of existence rather than another. They can travel over the universe without moving from a chair, or read simply for the delights of idleness.
If you ask habitual readers what reading is for, they will say that it is a special kind of pleasure, or that it has purposes so distinctive that it cannot be replaced by anything else. Reading is so closely linked with their growth as individuals that often they cannot distinguish in memory what actually happened to them from what they have read about. Reading may not necessarily have made them better people, but it certainly has given them access to more experience than anyone can encompass in a single lifetime. Good readers say that they discovered all of this (without knowing until later that they had discovered it) in childhood. I I contend that] we must offer all our children the possibility of this kind of reading, right from the start.
In the act of reading what someone has written, we enter into a kind of social relationship with the writer who has something to tell us or something to make with words and language. The reader takes on this relationship, which may feel like listening, but is in fact different in that it is more active. He recreates the meaning by processing the text at his own speed and in his own way. As he brings the text to life, he casts back and forth in his head for connections between what he is reading and what he already knows. His eyes scan forward or jump backwards. He pauses, rushes on, selects from his memory whatever relates the meaning to his experience or his earlier reading, in a rich and complex system of to-ing and fro-ing in his head, storing, reworking, understanding or being puzzled. Some successful readers say that they feel they are helping to create the work with the author. Children talk about being in a book, as if that were a place. We know we can possess a book in our heads after the actual volume has been returned to the library. Sometimes we carry phrases and characters about with us for the rest of our lives. Later we read significant things that illumine texts we had read before we left school. We gain more lives than one, more memories than we could ever have from what happened to us: in fact, a whole alternative existence, in our own culture or that of others. This is what the learner has to learn to do, and what we expect teachers to teach. Literacy has powerful consequences; not the least is that it changes one’s view of oneself and the world.
This article is an extract from the opening chapters of Margaret Meek’s new book Learning to Read. We are grateful to Margaret Meek and The Bodley Head for permission to reproduce it here.
Margaret Meek (known to many of her colleagues in the academic world as Mrs Margaret Spencer) is Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of London Institute of Education. She has for some years concentrated her research on the development of literacy in the young and how children become competent and sensitive readers of literature. Her conviction is that children’s reading becomes a problem when those who teach them neglect the importance of what children read, and she has lectured in Canada, Australia and the U.S.A. on this subject. In the children’s book world she is best known as a critic and as the Reviews Editor of the School Librarian; in 1970 she received the Eleanor Farjeon Award for her services to children’s literature. She is joint editor of The Cool Web, The Pattern of Children’s Reading (Bodley Head, 0 370 30144 7, £3.95).
Learning to Read (Bodley Head, 0 370 30154 4, £5.95) draws on Margaret Meek’s wide experience with parents and teachers. It sets out to help develop an understanding of what is happening when a child learns to read. Each chapter deals with a different stage of learning and is followed by a section on answers to questions parents typically ask and advice on choosing books for that stage. There are also some useful booklists. The book is addressed to parents but it should be required reading for all teachers who really care, as Margaret Meek does, about children, books and reading.