Why do some children find it difficult to learn to read? +There are a number of contributing factors as to why many children have reading difficulties. They are comprehensively covered in the book, Dealing with Dyslexia and Other Reading Difficulties, written by registered psychologists, Antony Earnshaw and Annabel Seargeant and published by Pearson Education. The authors, who have spent nearly 20 years investigating reading development as research psychologists, support the view that in general, poor reading skills are the consequence of ineffective and inadequate instructional approaches. What this means is that, in general, children fail to learn to read English easily or well because they are not taught properly.
Many teachers try all sorts of tried and proven methods, don’t they? Does this mean there is no one way to teach reading? +The research over the past 20 years has provided evidence that there is a clear learning pathway in learning to read and the issue of teaching reading has been distorted by a lot of teachers who have adopted the erroneous position that any number of ways purporting to teach reading will work or that there is no one right way. This has led to an eclecticism in reading lessons which has resulted in widespread confusion and reading difficulties among many children. In her book, Why Our Children Can’t Read, Diane McGuiness cites ‘eclecticism’ in Britain as the main contributor to poor reading skills. The situation has come about because entrenched and experienced teachers, untrained in how to teach reading skills, have adopted the high ground, claiming that their experience alone qualifies them as reading specialists. Unfortunately for many children, this is untrue. Teaching children to read English is a skilled activity and requires knowledge of the acquisition process.
What is the essential difference between someone who can learn to read easily and someone who has reading difficulties? +Research over the past 20 years has uncovered striking differences between children who learn to read with ease and those who do not. The purpose of experimental research into how children learn to read has in the main been concerned with uncovering what a good reader does and contrasting it with what poor readers do. Thus we are able to say with confidence that a person likely to become a good reader possesses phonological sensitivity while a poor reader lacks this awareness. In fact, one of the important conclusions of the research into instructional approaches is that as part of the teaching approach, it is necessary to produce phonological awareness before introducing children to the visual aspects of the alphabet. In simple language, sound comes before sight. One of the biggest mistakes made by untrained teachers of reading is to show children the letters of the alphabet prematurely. We know this because by measuring the phonological skill differences between good and poor readers we have been able to isolate phonological skills as an essential component of learning to read. Phonological sensitivity is the awareness that the spoken sound system of the English language, a language that consists of strings of words being arrayed together in sequence to make meaningful expressions, also includes within that sound system an accessible number of distinguishable sounds that are indivisible.
What is a good instructional approach? +A good instructional approach to reading lessons will make explicit the manner in which sounds combine to create words. It will teach students that accessing the sounds accurately makes pronunciation clearer. As students become aware of how sounds blend, they realise that whole meaningful words are actually an array of smaller sounds which can be added or subtracted, stretched and blended in the process of word construction. Thus by the time these students move on to looking at letters, what they are able to demonstrate is that letters representing sounds combine, as do sounds and are in fact ‘pictures of sound’. This is the first essential stage on the way to learning to read the English language. However, it is by no means the end of the story. English is a hybrid language and lacks an agreed rule system for its grammatical constructs, its syntactical outlines and most confusing, for the pronunciation of strings of letters or combinations of letters that combine to complete words. Take the letter ‘a’. It can represent several different sounds, as in words like ‘cat’, ‘gate’, ‘was’, ‘any’, ‘tall’, ‘bath’ and ‘area’. Or take the letters ‘ough’. It is impossible to know the correct pronunciation of these letters. In the word ‘cough’, the sounds are /k/-/o/-/f/. Now take the word ‘bough’. The sounds are now /b/-/ow/ (as in cow). With the same letter sequence in words like ‘though’, ‘through’ and ‘enough’, one can see that learning to read in English means knowing how to access the sound array accurately at all times. To not be able to do this means having to guess and hoping to get lucky in the attempt, frequently resulting in reading difficulties. Because English is not rule-bound, it cannot be learned by rules. The challenge faced by educators in recent times is how to empower children to accurately access the sound sequence. Once the foundational requirement to accurately manipulate the phonological array has been taught, the next challenge is how to guarantee accurate pronunciation of the sequence. As you saw by the example above, pronouncing the same group of letters is not always straightforward. Many words in English are unpredictable with regard to pronunciation. There has been a need for some time to create an instructional approach that would remove the confusion and ambiguities that can arise when group of letters combine in unpredictable ways. Children must know whether to say /off/ or /ow/ (for example) in a word like /cough/. Additionally many words in written English contain letters that seemingly make no contribution to the pronunciation of the word. This can lead to confusion and reading difficulties for any student. A word like /apple/ could as easily be written /apl/ where the three sounds are all present and eliminating the remaining letters /p/ and /e/. Historical conventions are not easy to override and few have tried or succeeded. Webster managed to eliminate a few anomalies in written English and changed ‘colour’ to ‘color’ for instance, but what has happened is that, in the main, the spelling conventions established by the 17th century have remained in place since and have been impervious to change, notwithstanding the differences between written ‘English’ and written ‘American’.
How did I Can Read develop? +I Can Read is an instructional approach (and forms the reading program of the I Can Read System Total Literacy System), that was developed in recognition of the above challenges that cause reading difficulties. It evolved as a direct response for students to acquire phonological awareness as a pre-requisite before taking on the task of processing sequentially using the alphabet and most significantly it developed an approach that removed the potential for confusion when children have to work out the correct pronunciation for letters or groups of letters. It actually is a direct intervention approach that, while it does not ‘tell’ the student what sounds to combine into words, it does ensure that they are able to access the correct sound every time and since they already have learned in the beginning part of the programme how to put sounds together, they are now assured of coming up with an accurate pronunciation. Not only is the student assured of pronouncing the word accurately, his confidence is likely to be enhanced as a result of his own recognition that he is correct (if he already knows the word). If he doesn’t, he is now able to ask his teacher what … (word) means, whereas previously he could only point to the letters challenging him from the page with little or no chance of being able to articulate the new word. In its simplest form, it is devised to enable children to link the phonological aspects of spoken English with the visual or graphemic aspects of the written language. Of course I Can Read didn’t happen overnight. Antony Earnshaw and Annabel Seargeant were originally working in a reading clinic in Sydney, Australia, and as they were aware of the connections between phonology and later reading skills, they were also aware of the challenges faced by students on the learning journey. By 1998, a number of programmes were reaching the market with mixed success. Some were so complex as to render them virtually inaccessible. Some depended on children watching up to 30 video based lessons. Others were eclectic programmes put together by people with no research background. What was needed was an instructional programme that was well structured, easy to teach, and effective as a learning experience. It is acknowledged that a dynamic and charismatic teacher will always make a positive impact on children, when a dull and listless teacher will not. But this new reading programme had to be effective regardless of who taught it. I Can Read is effective in that most of the work is done by the students themselves. It is taught systematically and is totally outcomes-based in its focus on empowering students to accurately access the sound string represented by groups of letters.
Has I Can Read a good track record? +Since its creation in 1998, I Can Read has evolved into a more mature total literacy approach. At the invitation of the Singapore Ministry of Education, Annabel Seargeant, co-founder of the system, was invited to do a pilot study of the system’s effectiveness in 2000. The small study compared a control group with some children who after only seven weeks improved in their reading skills by between seven months and three years. Ms. Seargeant was permitted by the MOE to offer the program throughout the Singapore education system. She trained over 200 primary teachers across 30 schools and trained some reading specialists in the Psychological and Guidance Services Branch of the Ministry of Education which provides specialist intervention for children with special needs. Many learning support co-ordinators adopted the reading program in their small groups of children with reading difficulties. A company (Total Literacy Pty Ltd) was formed in 2001 in Australia and the system became available more readily through specialist centres as part of a franchise operation. Today, there around 60 centres in 8 countries. I Can Read looks poised to spread through the region and beyond. It has gained acceptance as a very effective system that teaches a complete range of English skills. The product has evolved and continues to evolve as a literacy system and has broadened its emphasis to include extended literacy skills covering comprehension, grammar, spelling, drama and creative writing as well as public speaking. It started as an unplanned breakthrough in the academic world of science and has made the transition into public availability, not simply to address the student with reading difficulties, but for all children and adults wishing to improve their range of literacy skills. For more information about what your child does as he or she reads, or what he can do to learn to read or speak English, contact your nearest I Can Read centre with a view to having a diagnostic assessment administered which will explore what you or your child actually does during the reading process. It will show you whether or not you or your child have independent reading skills or need to acquire them.
Why can’t my child read even after phonics? +
The reasons for this are:
- First, about 20 per cent of children are phonologically insensitive. Cognitively, they can’t hear the separation of sounds in spoken words.
- Second, many children are learning to read English as a second language and have become confused about processing sequences of sound-letters. If they have captured their first language by depending on cues or recall, they may try to learn to read English in the same way.
- Third, instructional practices may not take into account how the brain processes information from sound to sight, a critical factor in the learning to read process.
An example of poor instructional practice is in the misapplication of phonics. We know the teaching of applied phonics is often applied incorrectly because many non-reading children actually know their phonics. Parents can help prevent reading difficulties by:
- encouraging them to use vocabulary and read to them every day;
- being patient and waiting until the child is phonologically ready (usually after three-and-a-half years old) before helping them to identify beginning spoken sounds;
- avoiding memory dependency: don’t use flash cards for phonetically regular words.
- demonstrating that reading is exciting and fun.
- taking them to an I Can Read centre so they can learn to read and speak and improve all literacy skills easily.
What is the scientific basis for teaching a very young child how to read? +It is possible for a three or even a two year old to pick up a favorite book and appear to be reading. The memory capabilities of young children are very powerful, but in most cases all that is happening is that the child is merely repeating something he or she has memorised. There is little or no understanding, and new concepts cannot be processed. Sometimes with such children, reading difficulties, if they develop, do not become apparent until the third year of primary school, because the child appears to be reading.
How do we explain the many young children who have learned to read by using flashcards and other such methods? +Of course a child may remember the shape of letters and follow the course of a book. We see very young children who can “read” every day, and yes, there are truly gifted children out there. In most cases however, the children we see are not actually working out for themselves the pronunciation and consequent meaning of words. Can the child “read” a new word he/she has never seen before? To put it another way, even a very young child can remember up to 2,000 words. To “read” a newspaper you may need less than half that number. To read and take in new concepts at a young age is also possible, but for maybe one in 100,000 children.