A natural way to learn to read

Looking for Literacy

A ‘natural’ way to learn to read

An Overview
For a number of years I have been modelling how people who learn to read, by themselves, before they start school, accomplish that skill. The people I modelled came from diverse economic and educational backgrounds, and had diverse levels of intelligence. As far as I can tell, this ‘learning to read’ model is consistent; they all did it the same way. I wondered whether you could teach this very efficient model to children who have not happened upon it themselves? I taught it to reception children in two primary schools, with some intake from areas of severe deprivation. I worked with non-reading children below the top level of the classes. In general, I saw the children once a week, for twenty minutes to half an hour, in small groups of one to three children; depending on concentration levels. I saw most of them about ten times. The class teachers were not carrying on the method during the week.

The answer is yes, you can teach this modelled method to other children. Eight of these children became fluent readers by the end of the scheme, some of them in five sessions. They knew lots of sight words; they could tackle new words by context, syntax, phonetics or family; they actively sought out new books to read, and were well above their age level in reading. All of the children learned to read many words.

I also used the method with older children (six through nine years) who hadn’t grasped reading yet. It worked just as well with them. These results were regardless of diagnosed specific learning difficulties like dyslexia. I have not tried teaching this to learning disabled children yet.

The Model
Those who learn to read by themselves start by learning specific words which are interesting to them. Usually the pattern is an echo of how we begin to speak: nouns (milk), adjectives (big milk), verbs (drink big milk), adverbs (drink fast), and then structure words (I drink the big milk very fast). There were some exceptions because of particular interests or because of specific books.

Once they knew a number of sight words, the children began to discover phonetic patterns for themselves, and used them (as well as pictures and context) to decipher new words they met.

Typically, these children read silently unless asked to read out loud. One commented that her mother was astonished to discover that she could read the stories herself, that were being read to her at night, at four years old. The girl thought that the ‘done’ thing was to listen to her mother, and hadn’t thought to say that she could read it herself.

As older readers, these children seldom used phonics. They sometimes read words out loud that they pronounced incorrectly, though they understood the meaning perfectly.

What is reading?
If we say a person can read, we expect that they can see words, know their meaning, and understand the specific meaning of them in the context of the sentence, paragraph and chapter where they find them. They do NOT have to be able to pronounce them to understand them. In fact, profoundly deaf, (signing) people can become literate in English, even though they never hear or say any of the words. In addition, pronouncing doesn’t always indicate that they can understand the words. We listen to children pronounce words, because it is an easy way for us to discover whether they can ‘read’ a passage. What we really want to know is whether they understand the passage. Pronouncing isn’t the same as reading and comprehending.

Children who have had hearing problems, which have made their speech difficult, can sometimes sound out words according to the phonetics they have been taught, but don’t recognise the words which they have sounded out, even though the teacher recognises them. The same is true for children who have heavily accented speech. Much of the recorded early success of synthetic phonics may be due to teaching children from Glaswegian primary schools to speak ‘British received pronunciation’ so that the phonetics work better. The skill learned does not always seem to lead to older readers. When a black southern USA teenager was shown the word ‘asked’, he knew exactly what it meant, and pronounced it ‘axed’. No wonder he was not learning to read with the phonics scheme his literacy unit was using.

How can you teach people to read this way?
In the best of all possible worlds, I would teach individual children with magnetic words of their choosing. Once they recognise a few words you can start adding in some more. They can arrange and re-arrange them to make new or longer sentences. Have lots of ‘and’s. What you are looking for is the recognition that individual words have a stable meaning, which is modified by the context, and that the sentence tells them something interesting, funny, or just enjoyable. When I am tutoring at home, this is what I do. Children MUCH prefer to learn to read their own sentences. If you try to fob them off with a ‘nearly like’ word which you have in stock, they visibly lose interest. You need some magnetic strips of paper, so you can quickly write the exact word they want. I have recently found a virtual fridge poetry computer programme, which I am going to trial. I think it will solve this problem.

In schools I am limited in both time and materials, and usually work with three or four children at a time, so I start with sets of words which I prepare and bring in. The words are chosen partly because the things they represent are in nearly every classroom. They also have some visual similarities, because I want the children to learn to visually discriminate between fine differences in the words.

The nine words I start with are: window, table, chair, pencil, book, door, floor, bin, box. I have sets of these words printed large on coloured card (a different coloured set for each child; saves on the sorting at the end!). Each child puts their words out on the table, so they can see them all. Then I hold up one of my words, and ask them to find the one of their words, which looks just like mine. I don’t say the word. I continue variations of this game until I am fairly sure that each child can match one of their words to the one I hold up.

Next I stick each of my words around the room, on the thing it names. We might walk around and look at them, and say the name of the thing the word is on. Then I ask them to pick up one of their words, walk around the room, and put their word near the one like it, and say the word. We continue until all the words are out, and then gather them back in, saying each one again as they pick it up. After several variations on this task, and when I think they can match all the words, I take down my words, and ask them to put their words on the correct object.

The next step is to get out some structure word phrases on card. The ones I have been using are: Put the, on the, in the, under the, Can you put the, Point to the, Sit on the. These are a bit random, and are calculated to make as many sentences as possible with the words we have been learning. I start out with Put the and on the, and tell them what the phrases say. Then I get them to give me one of their words, maybe pencil, so now it says Put the pencil, and then another word after on the, so it might say Put the pencil on the table. I keep changing the sentences, with the words they offer me, and start to point out that some of the sentences are ‘serious’ (make sense) and others are silly. They far prefer the silly ones. Put the door under the pencil. Once this concept is grasped, they are asked to say whether they think the words they have chosen will make a serious or silly sentence, before they put their words in the spaces between the structure words. This allows me to be sure they understand the meaning of the structure words and the nouns. Each time a child constructs a sentence from the nouns and structure words, they read it, and maybe another child does as well. As soon as they have grasped the idea, I ask them to read the sentence silently and do whatever it says, without speaking. Sit on the floor. Put the pencil under the table.

Once the children can do all of these things (between two and four sessions) we start on easy, repetitive picture books of their choice, available in most classrooms. Choosing one they want is more important than getting the ‘right’ level. I usually get them to read several sentences together, so that what they have read always means something.

The rules for this ‘reading’ are: they say all the words they know or can easily guess, they look at the pictures to see if they can figure out the meaning quickly; if not I immediately tell them what the word says. If there has been a break in continuity while they are ‘discovering’ a new word, I get them to repeat the beginning of the sentence. They are not asked to sound out the word if someone is there to tell them what it is. “Stuck on this word!” one boy shouts, after his strategies to decipher it have failed. Later we start some sounding, for when no one is there to ask. They enjoy reading the passage two or three times, to be sure they have all the words correct.

I am noticing that when children learn to read this way, they automatically can spell correctly as well, even words that they cannot pronounce. This makes sense with the Magical Spelling strategy. http://www.magicalspellinglimited,com

I realise that this method presently requires more individual time than most primary teachers can find. Perhaps it would mean training parents, or older pupils, to spend ten minutes, several times a week, reading this way with a child. On the other hand, it does not require additional expensive materials, and when successful, releases the teacher to do other kinds of learning with the children.

In September, I will begin working with a reception class (rising 5s) teacher and her pupils, one day a week. Our goal is to teach all the children to read competently, and in a manner which will allow them to be able to, and want to, develop their reading skills independently. We hope we can do this by the Easter break. I’ll keep you posted on this site.


About cricketkemp

I am a British/American citizen, trained first as a secondary English teacher and then as a nursery/infant teacher. I have two dyslexic children. I was a Peace Corps volunteer training primary school teachers in Nigeria. I have a life long interest in the aquisition of literacy. I have been 'modelling' the skills of naturally excellent readers, many of whom learned to read 'by themselves'. They are not the reading, writing, and spelling skills usually taught in schools. They can be taught, quickly and efficiently.
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3 Responses to A natural way to learn to read

  1. joketerp says:

    Hi Cricket,
    Nice! Makes me think about examples that might fit in this modelled strategy. Like children who can read the whole list of names of their classmates before they learned any characters. Just because they recognise the names of each child that is written on their chairs. I’m curious to your experiences with larger groups, the whole class.
    Joke T.

  2. cricketkemp says:

    Hello Joke

    Yes, I think we tend to discount that kind of ‘learning to read’, which is after all exactly the point of reading: to make sense out of symbols. Those children are perfectly aware that the symbol (the collection of letters of another child’s name) means that child. All reading is just a sophistication of that principle.

    Perhaps this weekend I will begin to add some of the detail and direction of my teaching programme: what skills I am trying to instill at each point, what evidence I am looking for before I move on, at what point I think they have ‘got it’.

  3. Vicci says:

    look forward to hearing how it goes.

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