“Magical” may sound like an overstatement, but actually we continually see more and more evidence of the power of reading. As children continue to grow, strength in reading offers a deep understanding of language and of narrative. It provides a pathway into other academic disciplines and can, in this age of the internet, eventually open the door to the sum of human knowledge. Now, if that doesn’t sound magical, I don’t know what does.
Common perceptions and approaches to literacy education
As educators, we often encounter attitudes towards literacy education that lean more towards the functional side of the scale. For example, people understand that reading is a skill that children must acquire and dedicate the necessary time to helping them learn the fundamentals. Within primary schools, and particularly in the early years, this usually means working through a reading program provided by the school.
There can be a lot of pressure to ‘complete the reading scheme’, that is, to race through the numbered or otherwise levelled reading books as quickly as possible so that children can be declared independent ‘readers’. For many children this is a successful process, a source of pride and achievement, and they soon enter the world of words and books with enthusiasm and wonder.
Many people perceive this as the end of a process. A job done… mission accomplished. It’s also common to see many students read passages from books beautifully, not a beat missed or word mispronounced, so in some respects this perception may be accurate.
However, if we scratch the surface, we often find that this impressive ability to decode the letters on a page and translate them into spoken words can disguise a much less developed ability to make meaning from those words. And unfortunately, it’s usually at this point in a child’s education that adults tend to stop reading with children, both at school and at home, so no one really has an opportunity to notice that there might be a disconnect there. If left unchecked, this can certainly continue through the primary years.
In the secondary context, there tends to be an assumption that students already know how to read, and that they have reached the end of the road.
However, while they may have learnt the mechanics of “how” to read, they still need to continue to develop their ability to comprehend what they are reading – in particular as they read more complex texts and texts which require them to infer much more of the meaning for themselves – to be able to “read between the lines” as we say. This is the point where you will often see students able to read every word on the page, but not always be able to explain what they have read – so comprehension really becomes the focus at this stage.
As texts get longer across the secondary years, if you have a reluctant reader or a child who finds reading difficult, this can really have a big impact on their attitude to learning. It’s important to remember that strong reading and writing skills are important across all subjects, not just English or humanities subjects.
At this point in their child’s education, as parents begin to find it hard to get children to read, one thing we are often asked about as educators is using audiobooks as an alternative to reading set texts for school. While this can be a helpful approach, it is really important that they are used to support a student in reading the text, rather than replacing it, for a few reasons:
- Firstly, the processes in your brain are quite different when you are listening than when you are reading, so it is not a substitute for reading and will not, by itself, develop their reading skills.
- Secondly, there will be times when a student needs to work with texts that don’t have an audiobook available, so it is vital that they don’t become too reliant on them.
Instead, if you choose to use an audiobook to support your child in reading a school text, ensure they are reading along with the audio book rather than just listening to it, and have conversations about the text to ensure they are absorbing the information.
Students need to be able to read and synthesise information in just about every subject – and given that English is generally compulsory up to Year 12, as well as there being a minimum English score for entry to many University courses, it really is an important area for students to develop solid skills.
And of course, beyond school, employers are looking for strong communication skills in just about every field.
Approach we take at Cluey towards supporting the development of reading and writing skills
We believe that rich texts written by accomplished authors are central to the development of strong reading and writing skills. That’s why we have built our English learning programs around them. We believe that a love of reading can be encouraged by working with a wide variety of texts so we choose carefully and try to use ones that cater to a variety of topics and interests. We like to make sure that the texts we use provide diverse perspectives in narrative and that we also showcase different kinds of texts that are created for different purposes and audiences.
For us, reading and writing are really two sides of the same coin. By doing one, you are also learning about the other, so it’s important to do both as often as possible. That’s why we provide our students with opportunities to read and write in every session.
By looking in detail at how accomplished authors have crafted and composed their works, creating purposeful effects and experiences for their audiences, students can begin to understand how to apply similar techniques to their own work.
We cover all the fundamentals of grammar and punctuation, but also look specifically at what makes writing good. How authors can create enjoyable experiences for their audiences. Having a deep understanding of these techniques really helps students as they make the transition from primary through to secondary.
Ways Primary parents can help strengthen reading and writing skills with their children at home
When it comes to reading with young children, it’s really impossible to over do it. The more adults read with children, the better. But families lead busy lives and it can be a challenge to set aside the time.
Generally the guidelines are that you should read daily with younger children. But that doesn’t always mean you should read large volumes of text. There are a lot of techniques adults can use to set children up for success, and even if your reading time is only ten minutes, you can still do a lot.
Start by getting set up to read, but try to keep the introduction short – about a minute is enough. Talk about the illustrations and the title. Read the blurb and talk about the author, talk about any unusual words, read a word here and there as your child flips through the pages, discuss the characters, make predictions. Just engage in some book talk.
Once your child starts reading, provide encouragement but try to avoid judging your child’s reading with words such as: ‘good’, ‘excellent’ or ‘getting better’. Instead say things about the strategies your child uses when reading such as: ‘I like how you sounded it out when you came to that difficult word.’ ‘I really like how you changed your voice to be like the different characters in the story’, or ‘I noticed that you reread the bit that didn’t make sense.’
Try to resist the urge to correct every error in real time, instead, allow your child to take their time, remind them of the reading strategies they know. So often, with the best of intentions, parents teach their children that the most effective reading strategy is to wait for an adult to read for them. You can spot this in children who stop looking at the page and look to the adult when they come across an unfamiliar word. You really want to develop a range of reading strategies with your child. And it’s important to keep in mind that while ‘sounding out’ is powerful and one of the first strategies students learn, it’s not the only one, and it doesn’t always work with the English language.
Rather than providing instant corrections, you could question whether something sounded right? Did it make sense? Look at the beginning sounds, and the ending sounds. Really teach your child to be inquisitive about errors rather than to avoid, rush past or, worst of all, fear them.
If you child is reading independently and has reached the level of chapter books, it is not really necessary for you to read together daily anymore. That is not to say you shouldn’t continue to share reading time together or talk about the books your child is reading. You could have them share their favourite part, or something they found really funny. You should focus much more on understanding and comprehension during this phase, and in particular, a child’s ability to ‘read between the lines’. What message is the author communicating in the book? What’s the big picture?
Ways Secondary parents can help strengthen reading and writing skills with their children at home
In the secondary years the biggest challenge is often getting them to read at all! We all know how powerful the distractions of technology can be, and that picking up a book can seem like a less exciting option. But there are a lot of things you can do to counter this.
We also know that it is a good idea for all of us to have some time away from screens before bed – this is the perfect time for winding down with a book. Encouraging students to read either their set school text or something of their choice for 15 to 20 minutes before bed can be a really effective strategy and will become a habit over time.
Having a follow up conversation about what they have read is a good way to check in and see if they are comprehending what they are reading. By telling you about it in their own words, they are practicing the key skill of summarising the information.
You can also then connect what they have read to their own experiences by asking follow-up questions like “Have you ever felt like that?” or “have things like that ever happened at your school?”. Making those connections can help students to become more engaged and interested in the text. It can also help if you read the text yourself, so that you can have more detailed conversations about it, and can help you to identify if your child is understanding the text.
Students should also be encouraged to read widely, not just the set school texts. A great way to do this is to find books and magazines about an area of interest – this might be sport, art or music – whatever your child is interested in. By working with your child’s interests, reading becomes much more appealing and pleasurable and can be part of their existing interest, rather than just something they associate with school.
How parents can support Primary school-aged children in developing their writing skills
As with reading, when it comes to writing, the more you do together the better. And the great thing about writing is, you can do it all the time.
If children enjoy being imaginative, give them opportunities to read stories they’ve written aloud (while you sit back and listen). Listen with a focus on the message they express. Comment on what they have done well, for example: ‘I enjoyed how you used interesting words such as ….’ ‘The character you created seems so real. I can imagine how she looks.’ Leave comments about spelling, punctuation, and grammar to another time — they are important when a work is published for a wider audience, but children can become demoralised and put off if that is the only focus when they share their creative work.
Also keep in mind that certain types of errors should be expected as children move through the primary years, it takes a long time to master the details of writing, so be patient. Writing can still be fun, engaging and expressive. Experimentation with grammar and punctuation is common and should be encouraged. On the other hand, a complete disregard for grammar and punctuation is also quite common, and this really shouldn’t be indulged for too long. Urge younger children to express complete ideas one at a time, and once they master this, encourage them to experiment with more complex compositions to add detail to their ideas.
Imaginative writing isn’t the only option either. Writing is everywhere in the world so when you’re out and about, draw your child’s attention to how writing is presented, for example, on brochures, billboards, books, and in the media — these are all models of writing for real purposes.
Above all, you can show your child that writing is highly valued in your home. Show children how you use writing every day. Write shopping lists, leave messages or poems for each other, write letters, cards or emails to loved ones.
How parents can support Secondary school-aged children in developing their writing skills
When it comes to writing, secondary students will likely be doing longer writing tasks such as persuasive writing, text response essays, language analysis and narratives, so talking to them about the different types of writing they are doing, and the differences between them, can help consolidate what they are learning.
Asking them to show you what they are working on, and to read it out loud to you as Rick suggested for younger students, can help you stay engaged with what they are doing at school, which certainly becomes more challenging in the secondary years.
Again, it is best to avoid any language that may be perceived as criticism, remembering that teenagers can be very sensitive about their work, and instead focus on the strengths of what they have written.
Ask them about why they have chosen to write what they did, and how they have incorporated what they have learnt at school into their own work.