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Sharing a Love of Reading

We humans are born communicators; spoken language is part of who we are biologically. But we aren't born with the ability to read. We have to learn how, and some of us find it very difficult.

As adults, we know how important it is to be literate: the links between literacy and behaviour, and those between literacy and health, have been well established. So, how can we help young people who struggle with reading?

For one thing, we know that reading has to be introduced to children at a very early age. In Nova Scotia, where I live, new parents, before they leave the hospital with their newborn, receive a package containing books and a movie that explains the importance and value of reading to their babies. Children also need to see family members reading for their own pleasure. After all, we model our value systems most of all through what we do, not through what we say.

In spite of our best efforts, though, there will always be children who find reading extremely difficult. In my experience as a high school English teacher, this usually does not mean these children are not able to learn to read. They just need extra time, support, and education. I created a course for the Nova Scotia Department of Education to address this need. Called "English 10 Plus," it gives students at the grade 10 level who struggle with literacy twice as much time to complete their compulsory grade 10 English credit, and allows them to earn an elective credit at the same time. I'd like to share some of the ways I helped them become stronger readers. All the ideas can readily be adapted for younger children.

First, and most important, teachers and parents need to be positive, honest, and respectful when working with someone who is struggling with reading. Children who find reading difficult are very likely telling themselves they are "stupid," and any sign of impatience or condescension from the person helping them will add to their stress, which in turn will weaken their ability to absorb meaning. When discussing reading challenges with my students, I sometimes gave each child a sheet of paper typed in Braille, and asked them to read it to me. Of course they thought I was joking, but when I asked them what they would need to know before they could read it, they became very thoughtful. Coming up with a long list of necessary skills and knowledge helped them to think about what a very complicated business reading is. Really, it's amazing anyone can read, was often the group consensus.

We also talked about what strategies strong readers use to make sense of print. Good readers always visualized?that is, they were busy imagining while they were reading. In my experience, struggling readers were always astonished to hear this. They didn't visualize, and they didn't know how. So, I took time to do visualization exercises. One of the most popular exercises we did was "going on a journey." Sylvia Gunnery, in her book, Just Write (Pembroke 1998), gives very clear instructions for taking students on such a "guided fantasy." Students relax, shut their eyes, and allow their imaginations full scope as the teacher slowly and softly makes suggestions for an adventure?perhaps to their "favorite place," or to a beach, or unknown country or planet?exploring that world through their five senses. I always assured students that they were in control of the experience, and so they could stop "playing" if they felt the least bit anxious or uncomfortable, as long as they remained quiet, and didn't interfere with their peers' experience. This would be a particularly important instruction for young children with vivid imaginations, I think.

Another activity students enjoyed was listening to a very sensory piece of writing, such as Samuel Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," then drawing and colouring their vision of the text, either by themselves, or in a cooperative learning group. It is interesting to have students dramatically portray meaning in a piece of writing, too. For example, I have asked an entire class to create a dramatic tableau of the physical reality of Plato's "Allegory of the Cave." In discussion afterwards, students remembered very well the strategies they used to come to a clear understanding of the text?by visualizing, rereading, making connections, asking questions, admitting confusion, and so on.

These strategies (visualizing, rereading, making connections, etc.) are essential tools for struggling readers. Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis, in Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension to Enhance Understanding (Stenhouse 2000) explore a wide range of ways students can learn and practice these strategies. Written for teachers of elementary school students, their ideas are adaptable for readers of all ages. I had all my students, in grades 10 through 12, learn these strategies, because everyone faces reading challenges at some time or other, and having a cache of techniques to call on is enormously helpful. The strategies are useful in making sense of visual text, such as movies and art, too. Learning how to make sense of text is a door to life-long learning.

Of course, there are children who need help with the most basic tool of reading?phonemic awareness. They aren't ready to learn reading strategies, because they are still battling with decoding. Overtaxed reading specialists have been rescued recently by miraculous computer software, which is improving every year and becoming more and more affordable. Repetition ("repeat, repeat, repeat") is how knowledge enters long-term memory, and these computer programs are the most patient of teachers. Earobics, for example, has levels appropriate for children, adolescents, and adults, and helps develop phonemic awareness, auditory pattern recognition, auditory discrimination, auditory sequential memory, visual attention, sound symbol correspondence, and more. WordMaker supports sight recognition of syllables and words, letter manipulation, letter patterns, patterns in words, and so on. Start to Finish Books, with beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels, help students develop reading comprehension; after all, the point of reading is to understand. If some face such challenges that they cannot learn to read fluently, iPod Audio Books, or text scanned through Kurzwiel, can still make the world of print available to their understanding.

Finally, choosing reading material is important: which of us enjoys reading that is not to our taste? I remember a young man I taught in English 10 Plus reading a bodybuilding manual for weeks while other students were doing a novel study. He was a very weak reader, and I felt supporting his reading interest was more important than forcing him to conform meaninglessly. By the end of the year, he had moved on to more varied texts, and was able to pass into Grade 11, with modifications.

Supporting reading development has never been more enjoyable than it is today, with our improved scientific understanding of the way our brains work, and the resultant excellent teaching manuals and assistive technologies. In my opinion, passing on a love of reading to the next generation is a fine goal and a delightful task!
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