Have you ever considered what we do when we read?
For many of us, reading has become such a natural and intuitive process that we rarely stop to marvel at the way we are able to make meaning from print or to question how one learns to read.
Although we know that we once weren’t readers, few can remember how we actually made the transition from being a non-reader to being able to read and have been doing it for so long now that it seems we always could.
Some adult readers have recollections of various instructional methods that were used in school and attempt to engage their own learner readers in similar tasks.
The recognition that some of the instructional methods did, and still do, equip readers with some tools for reading, does not imply that the use of these methods was the catalyst for learning to read. While they may have contributed to the development of reading, there are other influencing factors.
Many children learn to read despite the instructional methods, and many others don’t read using them and, in fact, remain non-readers because of them.
What is reading?
Reading is more than simply translating letters and words to sound. Reading involves thinking. It is a process of getting meaning from print. It requires the reader to understand ideas contained in, between and behind the words.
It is possible to “read” scientific articles and legal documents without making any sense of the content. But that would hardly be considered “real” reading.
Sometimes individual words may be familiar but, used an unfamiliar context, their meaning may be obscure, as shown in this example from Contextual and Data Refinement for the Refinement Calculus for Logic Programs, a thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy by Robert Colvin.
Other times, the intensity of unfamiliar scientific or technical terms may prohibit comprehension, as in this example.
Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll is another example. Readers may translate the words to speech while having no idea of their meaning.
But reading is more than just the sum of individual words. To fully understand a text, we must also understand the author’s intention and meanings implied but not explicitly stated.
Children must learn to “read between the lines” and interpret the text by making connections with what they already know, understanding links between different parts of the text, and being aware of techniques authors use to convey meaning.
While encouraging a love of reading through exposure to stories and books is essential, some of the best preparation for reading doesn’t come from books. It comes from extending a child’s general knowledge through a wide range of experiences enhanced by discussion and research. The more knowledgeable a reader is about a topic, sometimes referred to as prior or background knowledge, the easier a text about that topic is to read.
Whenever we read, we use our knowledge and expectations of
- the topic — what we already know and expect to find out
- the genre — the ways different texts are structured
- language structures (grammar, the way language flows)
- letter-sound relationships
to cue us into what is written on the page.
If reading is such a complex process, how does a young child learn to read, and how can we help children develop a reading strategy that integrates the cuing systems used by all effective readers?
What do we do when we read?
The importance of letter-sound knowledge and the ability to recognise words by sight is well-documented and accepted. However, the importance of engaging a reader’s prior knowledge of both topic and language is not always given equal airplay.
The purpose of the following exercise is to help you understand the processes that readers use when engaging with print.
Treat the exercise as a reading task and avoid attempting to solve it as a code, symbol by symbol. Doing so would defeat the purpose of the exercise and the opportunity for learning would be lost. Come to the exercise as would a child approaching print for the first time, trying to make sense of it.
I’ve left some clues for you by keeping word spacing and punctuation. Remember, beginning readers would have no knowledge of these conventions so, armed with this knowledge, you’re already ahead.
Can you read this?
No? What if I told you it was someone’s name?
No. (Remember – no trying to work out the code.)
What about if I add this to it?
and tell you it’s the title of a story? It’s still not much help, is it?
But if I show you the text with an illustration, I’m sure you’ll read it with no trouble:
Now that you’ve seen the illustration, your prior knowledge is activated. I’ve told you it’s a story and the illustration tells you what story it is. You read the title (and the name) easily: Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Well done. You used the picture with what you already knew about stories and words to work it out.
Did you find that you wanted to compare the sequence of symbols with the expected sequence of letters in the words to confirm your prediction? Well done, that is another strategy that young readers use to compare and confirm words on different pages.
When we read the story, you will use your memory for this particular story combined with your knowledge of story language, words and grammar to unlock the text. Notice that, while the symbols will have some importance, your prior knowledge will take precedence. You may find yourself checking some of the symbols to confirm your predictions are correct (as beginning readers often do).
Like you, most beginner readers would be able to retell at least some of the story details. Inviting them to do so prior to reading assists the reading process by establishing expectations of what the text will offer.
When we turn to the first page and I ask you to think about how stories begin, I’m certain you’ll read the text quite easily and confidently.
How did you go? Did knowing that many stories begin: “Once upon a time . . . “ help you to work out the sentence? Well done. In doing so, you have demonstrated how much you already know about reading:
- print can be turned into speech
- a message is recorded
- the picture is a rough guide to the message
- some language units are more likely to occur
- there is a particular message, of particular words, in a particular order
- memory, or what the ear remembers, helps
- we read print in a particular direction
Remember, this knowledge is also required by young children as they begin to learn to read. Never underestimate the complexity of the task we are asking of them or take for granted how easily many seem to master it. They had to do a lot of learning to get to this point.
(Just in case you want confirmation, it does say, “Once upon a time there were three bears”.)
You won’t have any trouble with the next three pages
You may hesitate at the next page, but if I ask you where the three bears lived, you will probably read it with little difficulty.
Sometimes people are tempted to cover the illustrations when children are reading, thinking it’s not ‘real’ reading unless they are reading just the text without pictorial information. I hope this exercise has demonstrated to you the importance of engaging prior knowledge and using illustrations to assist beginner readers.
Note: If you would like to continue reading this version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears or to use it when talking with other teachers or parents about the reading process, it is now available to subscribers in Classroom Management – For Parents — How we read – an exercise for teachers and parents. A printable version can be accessed from within the resource.
Engaging prior knowledge
The importance of activating children’s prior knowledge before any reading session is undeniable. You can assist them tune into what they will be reading by discussing:
- what they already know of the topic and text type
- the cover illustrations, searching for clues to what might happen in the story, or what information might be contained in the text
- what the book might be about — what they think might happen or what they expect to find out
- topic words and words that may be unfamiliar to the children
- illustrations on each page of the book so children have an idea of what it’s about.
In future posts, I will share teaching strategies that ensure children learn an effective reading strategy that employs all cuing systems: meaning (semantics), grammar (syntax) and grapho-phonics (letter-sound relationship) to help them unlock the meaning in a text.
readilearn: teaching resources for the first three years of school
Resources beyond worksheets – lessons for teachers made by teachers.
Let readilearn lighten your workload.
I appreciate your feedback and comments. Please share your thoughts below.