Saturday, May 5, 2012

Real Reading?

I was vaguely disturbed when I read this article about 'real reading' and 'real books'. During the 90's in the UK, there was a huge push towards children reading 'real books', to the exclusion of all other ideas behind teaching reading. There was a very 'hit-and-miss' approach to teaching reading - somehow, by osmosis or dumb luck alone, the trolling through of lots of books would create a reader. What followed was, of course, an enormous collapse in the quality of reading teaching, which eventually led to the nationwide need for a scheme of work now known as the Literacy Hour.

Now this whole concept of 'real books' as the only way, was replete with problems. With no system for the intentional teaching of reading strategies, there was a huge group of children who fell through the cracks, never actually becoming competent or confident in reading strategies and skills. There was no teaching of higher order reading skills so the transition of 'learning to read' into 'reading to learn' was one that never happened for many children.

I am the first person to cry out that books must ooze out of every pore of every classroom, REAL books if that is what we must call them. My own class library is filled to bursting point with almost every REAL book I have ever owned, close to 400 of them. (The rest are in my home, on the shelves for my own children.) But, having taught Reading Recovery for several years, I can honestly say that graded texts are the best method for systematically building skills for decoding, self-monitoring, self-correcting etc. independently. Shared texts and REAL books are a great way to access more challenging texts for emerging and early readers. This is why, as parents, we should read to our children every day from the earliest possible age - to nurture a passion for stories and an understanding of language through text.

But I draw the line in the sand when people cry out against graded texts. They have a definite place in the systematic teaching of reading - but they are only PART of a whole language approach to the teaching of reading. The graded texts must be a PART of but not ALL of the teaching, and this is something that the writer of the article fails to acknowledge. The overuse of the Oxford Reading Tree books, who featured Biff and Kipper and terribly repetitive storylines that were droll and fabricated, (books that don't exactly scream "Read me!" to discerning youngsters) has led to this reaction to graded texts.

So I will put it more simply. Graded texts have a definite place. ONE type of reading scheme, standing alone as the ONLY way to teach/learn to read does not have a place in ANY reading programme. So, in this respect, I do agree with the author of this article. However, I stand by my strong opinion that a WHOLE language approach must be the method that is employed. Over the decades, the UK have moved towards phonics-only programmes and then the 'real books' programmes which left behind ill-equipped, frustrated teachers and learners. I would be happy to see them biff out Biff but not the concept behind graded readers. Perhaps I can summarise it by saying that a bit of everything is the best way to taste anything.

Our emerging, early, developing and advanced readers deserve to experience books and texts as the magical and wonderful, inspiring and theatrical, whimsical and realistic, fantastic and comical, mysterious and delightful language conveyors that they are.

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