Reading’s a funny old business. Generally, secondary school teachers expect kids to come with a pre-loaded reading module. If they have it, all well and good. If they don’t, we’re stuffed. Luckily, the vast majority of students can read by the start of Year 7, even if they say they can’t. But being able to read and being able to access the kind of material required to be academically successful are not at all the same thing.
When I started teaching I knew next to nothing about reading, and I was meant to be an English teacher! Because it was something I was able to ‘just do’ I assumed that would be pretty much the same for everyone. It’s not. Some – perhaps even most – students can just do it, but those that can’t may well need some extra help. The following five hard-won nuggets of information are the product of long experience and extensive study. I hope they prove useful in the months ahead.
1. Just because students struggle to read doesn’t mean they’re thick
The ability we call reading is vastly complex. It’s made up of two very different skill areas: word recognition and language comprehension.
Teachers rely on children’s language comprehension skills to deliver curriculum content, but this is very difficult if students have shaky word recognition skills. Although comprehension is very closely linked to intelligence, decoding, the ability to turn letters (graphemes) into sounds (phonemes) isn’t. It’s perfectly possible for students to struggle to read and be intelligent. Likewise, it’s equally possible for students to find reading easy but struggle with understanding. Struggling to read is a teaching problem and can, for the most part, be solved by better teaching.
2. Working memory affects reading ability
Psycholinguist ED Hirsch Jr says, “If decoding does not happen quickly, the decoded material will be forgotten before it is understood.” We expect fluent and accurate decoding to be one of the first things children learn in primary school. Often though, although children can read, they can’t do it quickly enough. Normal reading speed is 300 words per minute; if reading speed falls below 200 words per minute, comprehension begins to suffer. For a skilled reader, word recognition skills have been automated and embedded in long-term memory. When we read we don’t have to consciously think about any it and our fragile working memory is free to infer, speculate, hypothesise and anticipate.
3. Comprehension depends on general knowledge
Teaching comprehension ‘skills’ like inferring, predicting, questioning and empathising do make a marginal difference to children’s ability to understand texts, but they’re not worth spending more than a lesson or so on. There’s a great story about a woman who went to hear Einstein give a lecture on relativity only to say, “I understood all the words. It was just how they were put together that baffled me.” Understanding what you read depends on how much you know about the subject you’re reading about. Consider this example:
A manifold, contained in an intuition which I call mine, is represented, by means of the synthesis of the understanding, as belonging to the necessary unity of self-consciousness; and this is effected by means of the category.*
Although you probably know what all the individual words mean, you may not have any understanding of the context. Can you work which of the following best represents the main ideas in the passage?
- Without a manifold, one cannot call an intuition ‘mine.’
- Intuition must precede understanding
- Intuition must occur through a category.
- Self-consciousness is necessary to understanding*
Maybe you can, but are you any clearer about what the passage means? Unless you’ve studied Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason you’re going to be on a back foot. The only way to reliably understand a text is to have sufficient background knowledge to make sense of the concepts. As a teacher, this simply means you need to make sure students understand the concepts that underlie a text before giving it to them to read.
4. Vocabulary matters
Even if you have sufficient general knowledge, you still need to know what the words mean. Surprisingly, we need to know 90-95% of the words in a text in order to understand it (Nagy & Scott 2000.) This may seem high, but 5% would be about 10-15 words a page. Imagine reading something where you have to look up 10 words a page; your working memory would very quickly become overloaded and you’d probably give up.
Vocabulary breaks down into 3 tiers. Tier 1 is the vocabulary of spoken language and not something we need to worry about much in schools. Tier 3 is specialised, academic language – key words. We’re pretty good at teaching these because a conceptual understanding of say, osmosis, depends on knowing what the word means. The problem is with Tier 2. These are words which are common in written texts but rare in speech. Unless you read, you won’t encounter these words, but to readers their meaning is so obvious it’s hardly worth mentioning. Academic success depends on being familiar with the language used in text books and exam papers. You may understand a concept, but if you don’t know the word used to label it you’ll be at a huge disadvantage. I’ve written about some solutions here.
5. Everyone loves stories
Students who read for at least 20 minutes per day and enjoy reading do better at school. Indeed, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, reading ability at age 10 predicts future income at age 42. The more you read, the wider your vocabulary and general knowledge will be. Unfortunately, unless you’ve embedded word recognition skills in long-term memory you’re probably not going to enjoy reading: it will be laborious, effortful and dull. Many many students report ‘hating’ reading. In a piece of very unscientific research I did with a school students reported that reading was for old people and people with no friends. Not cool.
But even though some children ‘hate’ reading, everyone loves stories. Stories occupy a ‘psychologically privileged’ position in how we think and understand the world. One way to harness students love of stories is for teachers to read to them. Primary teachers do this regularly but reading aloud tends to be frowned on in secondary schools. We get our knickers in a twist about trying to prove progress and other such nonsense. This post contains some ideas about how to get students to read for pleasure.
Knowing this stuff won’t magically make your students read better but it will make you a more effective teacher. Whatever your subject, at some point academic success depends on students’ ability to read. If you understand a bit more about the processes and why some children struggle, you will be better placed to adjust your classroom practice and refer students for appropriate support.
I’ve also written about the five most useful things teachers should know about writing.
Beck, McKeown & Kucan, Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction
Daniel Willingham, Raising Kids Who Read
*I think it’s #3