Colin Mills, one of our regular book reviewers, spent the school year 1984-85 on sabbatical leave during which he worked in classrooms where teachers were making innovations in their practice concerning reading and literacy. He also spent time in the English Department of the London Institute of Education, where he was lucky enough to work with Margaret Meek, Harold Rosen, and Professors Kenneth and Yetta Goodman, who spent time as visiting lecturers in the department. We asked Colin, who said he’d enjoyed the space to ‘talk, listen and think’, to sum up for us what he thinks are the most significant new directions in relation to readers, books and classrooms. What follows is a personal view, though he draws upon conversations with the gifted teachers with whom he’s worked this year.
I’d guess that the first thing to say is that this year has taught me what I thought I knew and what any of you could have told me at the beginning: in-service education is important! It’s vital to have the time to look afresh at what we all think we know well and see things clearly, as if for the first time. The main focus of my work this year has been to look at changes in the teaching of reading in primary classrooms. I’ve been particularly interested in the role that ‘real books’ have to play in the development of readers, and the ways in which classrooms reflect views of literacy. In this ‘review’, I’ve drawn upon observations, conversations, my work in classrooms to point Books for Keeps readers towards what I think are new directions.
Readers and books
Often, during the year, I’ve thought back to a conference I attended a long time ago as a probationary teacher. The title, I think, was Children’s Books and Reading. I remember somebody saying to me: ‘Are you a books person or a reading person?’ I’ve recalled that question so often as I’d like to think that it would not be asked of a young teacher today. One of the most exciting things that has happened in the last decade is that teachers, and those responsible for the development of children’s reading, have realised that books are not rewards one gets for having learned to read but are essential to the process of becoming a reader.
This realisation has come about largely through the work of teachers such as Margaret Meek, Cliff Moon and Jill Bennett, who asked in the very first issue of this magazine ‘Is your reading scheme really necessary?’ Liz Waterland has now joined the pioneers and has shown in a very practical and humane way how good books and the guidance of a skilled teacher make committed readers. This shift of emphasis from a view of reading concerned with skills and drills, with code breaking, owes much to the insights and writing of linguists such as Frank Smith and Kenneth Goodman. It was Smith who persuaded teachers to question the traditional view of reading as a process best learned from the ‘bottom up’, that is to say, from learning letters, to words, to sentences, usually in specially simplified patterns. Rather, a ‘psycholinguistic’ view teaches us that children approach reading from the ‘top down’, seeking for meaning from the beginning, as they do when they learn oral language. Children, from the start, need to learn to ‘behave like readers’, just as in learning to talk, they behave like active talkers. Smith always reminds us that children learn to talk not in artificial or ‘practice’ situations, but in meaningful and real contexts. Goodman’s insights further showed us how children draw on a vast range of linguistic knowledge which they learn as talkers (word order, meanings, and what is likely to make sense in a sentence, or a story) when they are becoming readers.
On his recent visit to England, Goodman was impressed by the ways in which teachers he met had accepted these views of reading: ‘The key to a linguistic view of reading seems to lie in the operations children make upon the books and stories they read,’ he explained. His wife and co-worker, Yetta Goodman, whose extensive research has been focused on the early reading development of children from varied cultural groups in the USA, was ‘bowled over by the presence of so many real books’ in the English classrooms they visited . . . ‘It is books with a real sense of story which actually enable the sense-making and the prediction which children need to do in reading.’ They both told me how the presence of so much lively and involved reading in classrooms they visited here was a culture shock after working in so many ,structure-ridden, scheme-laden’ North American schools.
From Listening to Reading
What exactly does it mean when we say that it is books (and authors and artists who are concerned with the pleasure of reading) that teach children to read? For one thing, these books tend to build upon the storytelling that children do naturally, as part of their play and their imagination. In one of Margaret Meek’s stimulating seminar discussions on culture, we were all staggered by how much children actually learn from the little stories they are told about the world. This storying, this use of narrative, is one of the ways in which children pattern their thinking. They soon become adept at shaping these narratives, taking on different roles and building upon stories they have been told as models. Carol Fox’s fascinating work shows us a great deal about the early competences of pre-school children and Harold Rosen writes persuasively and thought-provokingly about the power of story in all our lives. New research shows that children hearing stories read aloud is still an important part of the process of learning to read. Henrietta Dombey’s work, for instance, makes clear how children use the storyteller’s voice patterns, intonation and responses to questions to understand the meanings of the story being told – a competence which they can carry over to their own independent reading.
Behaving Like a Reader
What part do good books play when children come to learn to read in classrooms? Let one example from my year’s work try to illustrate this. Wendy is six, and she is reading to me from the first few pages of Tilly’s House by Faith Jaques (Picture Lions). It is one of the first extended texts she is reading; she is beginning to read fluently and independently. I have been working in her classroom for two terms and have observed her progress through picture books with some text, to books like the present one where the text begins to be more important. Wendy’s teacher has adopted an ‘individualised’ approach to reading, within which she places carefully sequenced books from the best of currently available picture and story books. She keeps records and notes on all the children’s reading. There are two or three storytelling sessions within the day, as well as many opportunities for the children to browse, share stories and poems, and read independently.
The teacher spends time during the week on certain strategies for reading such as letter sounds, combinations and interesting words, but this is always clearly within the context of pleasurable reading. During our reading sessions, I observe how Wendy uses her knowledge and experience as a language user and a reader when she comes to words she has not met before.
On page two she meets the word ‘scrubbed’. ‘She cleared the breakfast table, made the beds and swept and cleaned and scrubbed and polished all day long.’ Her first strategy is to sound it out – she knows about ‘sc’ and ‘ed’ – but she can’t get it. She looks at the picture (which is full of cleaning equipment) and back at the text. ‘Is that “scrubbed” – that’s like scrubbing; it’s cleaning.’
On page four she reads `wearily’ in “‘Nothing will ever change,” she thought wearily,’ as ‘worrying’. Then she stops; clearly that doesn’t make good enough sense for her. She looks hard at the picture of Tilly sitting on her bed, evidently worn out. ‘Is she tired? Oh yes, I know. She’s weary.’ Wendy re-reads inserting `weary’ which she quickly changes to ‘wearily’ as she realises she needs another part of speech. The story itself has given her the word.
Even in these two brief examples Wendy shows that she has a bundle of reading strategies acquired from rich and varied learning experiences with language and books. Her behaviour as a reader illustrates vividly for me the validity of all that the researchers mentioned here have written and said.
Some extracts from my notes of the reading session show how it is the book itself which helps Wendy progress and how it builds upon her competence and experience:
She looks carefully at the picture of the dolls’ house, seeming to ‘place’ the setting of the story. ‘That’s the Daddy’s room … that’s the kitchen …’ This is a behaviour I’ve seen her teacher encourage in many previous story-sharing sessions: eg, a twenty minute discussion on the ‘map’ of the story at the beginning of the Ahlberg’s Each, Peach, Pear, Plum.
She is doing exactly what Henrietta Dombey has observed children do when they listen to stories. She is grasping the overall sense of the situation and giving that understanding concrete meaning by fitting in the details. It is the particular quality and combination of Faith Jaques’ text and pictures which makes it possible; an `unreal’, sterile text would not have created this space for the reader.
She looks at the picture of the old Cook, Tilly’s boss, and says ‘She looks bossy and grumpy’. Wendy is learning to read situations and characters in a way that is developing from many previous discussions of stories, picture books and real classroom events. This ‘hunch’ of hers about the Cook is confirmed by the text.
Wendy begins to read: ‘She climbed the stairs to her little room in the attic and sank onto the bed …’She then looks closely at the picture, and tells me a story about the characters in Cockleshell Bay, one of her favourite TV programmes – ‘They have a new baby in the family now, so their house is very cramped.’ This aspect of reading, the relation of known stories from diverse sources to new texts, is another feature of teacher-led story sessions that I have observed a great deal.
I recall Harold Rosen as I observe Wendy bringing her accumulated experience of story to this new reading. Interesting too how easily and naturally Wendy links her story experience from television with books – the majority of the associations she volunteers in our sessions are from television.
Later on in the reading, Wendy ‘sorts out’ from the text, the pictures and her talk around them both that Tilly is much smaller than the ‘real’ children in the book. That is one of the central ideas you have to grasp before you can understand Tilly’s tale. All this happens through Wendy’s predicting; talking about the ideas in the story; relating the story to others she has read (eg Sally’s Secret by Shirley Hughes). She is gaining in confidence and competence; the text and the time given to it are supporting her development.
Classrooms and Teachers
Time is given to such activity in Wendy’s classroom. Her teacher, Kay Morgan, gives each child in the class a chance for extended contact with her and a book as often as possible. She uses parents and any other willing outside helpers to enable this to happen. This emphasis upon the context and the settings within which children learn to read is a significant new direction. To Frank Smith’s reminders about the meaningful nature of children’s oral language acquisition, we can now add the wealth of evidence from Gordon Wells’ Bristol-based study of pre-school language development: language is learned by children as it is purposeful and central to their intentions. What implications does this have for our classrooms as places where children learn literacy? One of the features of the language learning situation that Wells draws attention to is that language is meaningful for all concerned – those learning it and those modelling its use. Kay Morgan, inspired by the work and writing of Jill Bennett and Liz Waterland, has tried to create a real reading environment in her classroom:
‘When I was taught about the teaching of reading in College, I rather got the idea that it was a dull and mechanical routine. In my first classroom, children learned to read with staid and dated reading schemes. As I got more confident, and to know more about the wealth of good books available, I realised that learning to read had to be pleasurable and meaningful for children. We now use picture books and story books, and, although it’s taken time, energy and explanation to win over parents, the children enjoy their reading and make fantastic leaps in their learning.’
There is a space, each Tuesday morning, when children can talk about, or paint pictures about their favourite books read during the week. Other teachers from the area visit the school regularly to see her work in action and having to argue for her methods keeps her `on the ball’ and critical and evaluative. But, she says, she feels ‘more involved than ever’ and she really enjoys seeing the reading process happen. Sharing in Kay Morgan’s involvement, together with all the talking, thinking and reading I’ve been able to do this year, has led me, I feel, to a fuller understanding of the way reading develops in young children. The kinds of competencies Wendy was using in just the brief situation described here shows that she is building upon what she has heard her teachers do, what she has been encouraged to do herself and, perhaps most importantly, what the books themselves allow space for. This year has made me more confident than ever in my belief about how readers are made. Two things are crucial: first, the quality of the books we offer which themselves teach children about reading; second, the awareness and attitudes that we as teachers model for children in our classrooms which show them how readers behave.
If my report of this year does nothing else I hope it will encourage other Books for Keeps readers to reflect on and perhaps even to talk, write about and share their experiences and observations.
More reading and sources of ideas
Awakening to Literacy, Hillel Goelman and others (Eds), Heinemann Educational (1984), 0 435 10818 2, £12.50
Collection of fifteen articles which represent current high points of thinking and research on early reading acquisition and its links with culture and intellectual development. Particularly good is Yetta Goodman on the development of initial literacy. Frank Smith writes on the creative achievement of literacy. Jerome Bruner argues for stories, or ‘guided dreaming’, as central to reading development. Hunt out in the library, or get a staff room copy.
Learning to Read, Margaret Meek, Bodley Head (1982), 0 370 30154 4, (currently reprinting)
Still probably the best account of reading development which takes the intentions of the learner and the role of books into account. Very recommendable to parents, to whom it is addressed.
Opening Moves, Margaret Meek (Ed), Bedford Way Papers, Number 17 (1983), 0 85473 161 X, £2.25 to personal callers at the Institute of Education, Bedford Way, London; £2.45 by post from The Sundries Department, Heinemann Ed, Windmill Press, Kingswood, Tadworth, Surrey KT20 6TG
Carol Fox’s article Talking Like a Book shows the kinds of previously unexplored competences that very young children have involving their knowledge of stories and narrative. Henrietta Dombey’s work on the awarenesses children acquire during storytelling sessions is also reported here as Learning the Language of Books.
Practical Ways to Teach Reading, Cliff Moon, Ward Lock Educational (1985), 0 7062 45687 7, £4.95
A splendid collection of practically-focused pieces on ways of putting theory into practice.
Children Reading to their Teachers, NATE (1984), £1.30 inc. postage, from NATE, 49 Bromsgrove Road, Sheffield, S10 2NA
Six very practical articles on approaches to classroom practice. Specially good is Anne Baker’s discussion of a reading session with a nine year old. Cliff Moon has a clear and helpful piece on the ways in which children’s miscues when reading aloud can be made use of: a realistic application of Goodman’s ideas mentioned in the article above.
Stories and Meanings, Harold Rosen, NATE (1984), £1.75 inc. postage from NATE
Two articles and a short autobiographical story which convey in a compelling way this writer’s commitment to the role of narrative in our lives. Highly readable. Suggests starting points and reading for teachers who want to pursue ideas.
Joining the Literacy Club, Frank Smith, (1984), 0 7049 0913 8, £1.70 inc. postage, from the Centre for the Teaching of Reading, London Road, Reading (this is a new address from the end of September)
One of four sturdily produced booklets which is a good summary of this writer’s powerful ideas on the links between language learning and literacy learning.