Learning how to read is a very big deal

| January 27, 2020 | 0 Comments

Title: Teaching Reading Comprehension
Authors: Elizabeth Pretorius, Sarah Murray
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 9780190448837
Reviewed by: Fiona de Villiers

We all know that hundreds of thousands of South African children struggle with literacy.1 I’m not going to revisit the depressing statistics. Rather, I’m going to give you a way to address this crisis.

You can start your journey on page four of Oxford University Press’s (OUP) new text, Teaching Reading Comprehension. Here, authors Elizabeth Pretorius and Sarah Murray make their intent plain: The purpose of this book is to describe reading in detail in order to convey a deeper understanding of what reading comprehension entails: why it is important; how it works; and what stakeholders in education can do to improve the reading abilities at primary, secondary or tertiary level… knowing about
reading… puts teachers in a much better position to identify and tackle learners’ reading problems.

Once you’ve soaked up that crucial piece of information, you’ll see that right up front, Pretorius and Murray have provided a description of a scene typical of many early childhood development (ECD) classrooms around the world, in which a teacher makes her students read aloud and then
comments on their efforts.

Reading is a complex process

In order to be able to place this scene in context, Pretorius and
Murray explain that for the fortunate few (relatively speaking) on the planet, reading comprehension is something many of us don’t even think about. Yet for millions of others, learning to read is such a negative process that it colours the experience for them forever.


The authors use the ‘Goldilocks effect’2 to explain the many abstract conceptual links that are required for a reader to comprehend any text. They say, ‘Some children who read the text may struggle to read the words. Some can read the words, but can’t get beyond the literal level of the sentences.’ The trick of course, if you remember the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, is to get it [reading] ‘just right’.

In many South African homes, books are not a priority, but an unaffordable luxury. Those children who don’t see books on the shelf at home, and don’t read them, are affected forever.

Additionally, many very young children may not come into contact with a book written in their home language until a much later stage of their development. But, say Pretorius and Murray, the most important thing to take on board here, is that: ‘many reading comprehension problems arise from challenges that learners have with the knowledge and skills associated specifically with using and understanding language in its written, print-based form, whether in the home language or an additional language.’

If you pause for a moment and place yourself in a young child’s shoes, a child who comes from a house where there are no books and goes to a school where she is expected to read to a particular arbitrary standard, you may start to understand how complex reading really is. First, says Pretorius
and Murray, one must understand the symbols used, (A, B, C etc.) and then the system that strings these symbols together. Learner readers then need to embark on a decoding process, part of which requires them to memorise the key elements of the meaning of the text as they go along, in order to
comprehend the whole.

Many learning issues associated with reading

Pretorius and Murray have dug deep into the wealth of research around reading to describe four key principles and their implications that teachers should know about. First, language and reading are part of the same ‘loop’: for example, the richer the child’s vocabulary in any language, the easier it will be for her to learn to read in that language. Second, language comes
naturally to a child in the home environment, but reading is something that must be taught and learned. Third, explicit instruction can and most definitely does improve reading comprehension. Fourthly, reading cannot occur in a vacuum: context is crucial. A school, say Pretorius and Murray, ‘should be a site of rich literacy experiences.’

Put yourself back into that young child’s shoes for a further moment and you should, add the authors, realise that reading is an extremely big deal. If a child in any grade struggles with any issue at all in any subject area, chances are that it can be traced back to reading difficulties. Therefore, during staff meetings, no teacher should say, “I just don’t know why Sarah is struggling so to understand basic geography concepts.’ The onus is on all
teachers in that school to do a bit of detective work to uncover Sarah’s relationship with reading, even if it means going back to her earliest interaction with books.

The teacher as a literacy guide

At this point, the authors of Teaching Reading Comprehension deal briefly with the impact of perceptions on reading ability. Here we can add to our checklist for Sarah: a student’s own evaluation of her reading ability can very easily reveal her areas of struggle. What every teacher should be aiming for, says Pretorius and Murray, is ‘skilled readers’ who ‘rely on deep
comprehension – engaging with texts at a deeper level.’ Knowing where students were let down when they first tried to learn to read, can be the first step to a more positive academic experience.

Evaluation should lead to intervention, and, say Pretorius and Murray, the simple strategy of paired reading can lead to radically improved comprehension. Alongside this practice, should come a renewed look at literacies in the 21st century. The over-used phrase ‘critical thinking’ comes under review here: the teacher, say Pretorius and Murray should become ‘a literacy guide in a world of multiliteracies,’ because ‘the high literacy
demands of the 21st century put pressure on learners to be good readers.’

If, like me, you care about generations to come and their ability to thrive in society, you will want to read the rest of this fascinating text. If you’re a practising teacher, make it a focus of your continuing professional developing and note the active difference you’re making in your students’ lives.

1. See: https://africasacountry.com/2019/04/why-are-south-africanchildrenstruggling-to-read-properly

2. See: https://www.socialmediatoday.com/content/technology-connections-andgoldilocks-effect

Category: Summer 2019

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