Saturday, January 14, 2012

Early Literacy

     My main concern is with the high level of illiteracy in Jamaica and the fact that children can pass through the school system without learning to read. It doesn’t have to be so. I believe that many of us making a small contribution could make a real difference. My posts over the next few months will give suggestions as to how. I will start with outlining the situations in which children do learn to read.
     Volumes have been written about methods of teaching children to read, and hundreds of hours have been spent researching how children learn, but how a person actually learns to read is still a mystery. Methods go in and out of fashion, and one set of research contradicts the findings of another. But one observation remains constant— a child learns best in an atmosphere free of stress, in the company of a supportive and caring individual. Badgering and harassing a child, or otherwise communicating anxiety will result in the child having an adverse emotional attitude towards learning.
     There are many pre-reading activities in which a child can be involved which increase the child’s experience, foster the growth of language and encourage awareness and concentration, all of which set the stage for learning to read. These include Art, Crafts, Music, Movement and Imaginative Play, which a child can do at home or at Basic School. Some examples are

• Listening to and telling stories, rhymes, jingles, poetry.    

• Giving and following instructions.                                                 

• Dressing up and role playing, pretend and real use of telephone.

• Taking part in desk games.

• Sorting and matching by colour, size and shape in various materials.

• Drawing with pencils, crayons or markers. Painting with a brush (I have beaten the ends of hibiscus twigs to make brushes for 3-year-old children who tend to destroy conventional brushes.) Drawing with fingers in sand (not necessarily at the beach).

Children painting at my school in Lucea. 1983
      Some people think that ‘just playing’ has nothing to do with learning, when in fact it is an important pre-reading activity.
     Children will probably have no difficulty learning to read if they have had plenty of pre-reading activities, and if the following apply: The child

• Is in good health, can see and hear properly, is free from speech defects and is not seriously retarded in intelligence.

• Is not suffering from stress or post-traumatic stress disorder.

• Asks questions and wants to know what’s going on.

• Understands oral instructions and is able to carry them out.

• Listens satisfactorily to a story and can retell a simple story.

• Can see similarities and differences in simple drawings.

• Draw in a representational form.

• Is generally self-reliant and able to work on his/her own for short periods.

• Co-operates with others.

• Can match word with word.

• Shows signs of wanting to learn to read.

(Adapted from Key Words to Literacy by J. McNally and W. Murray The Teacher Pub. Co.)

     By the time they are five or six years old, children who have been exposed to books will also know how to turn the pages, and be aware that sentences run horizontally, from left to right. They will probably be more proficient than me with computers, tablets and smart phones! They will most likely know the letters of the alphabet and be able to write them. Teaching of reading and writing go hand in hand.

What next?

Examples of flash cards
      That depends on the teaching method employed. In the ‘look and say’ method, the child learns to recognize whole words by their shape, in sentences in a reading book or on flash cards. Whole sentences help the child to anticipate meaning. Flash cards can have a picture on one side and word on another, and a child can use them as a prompt. They have a variety of other uses, including the playing of games.

Some teachers use phonics from the beginning and use series such as Jolly Phonics. Children learn to associate letters with the speech sounds they represent, rather than learning to recognize the whole word as a unit. Knowing the letter sounds, the child must learn to blend e.g. ku-a-t into ‘cat’. I often wondered why so much emphasis is placed on spelling in Jamaican schools, but I had to ask myself
     “Is it easier to decode using phonics or by having learnt a spelling?”
      Part of the difficulty associated with phonics results from the way in which Jamaicans pronounce their words. (This difficulty is not unique to Jamaica as there are variations in pronunciation wherever the English language is spoken). Whether through spelling or phonics, the child only becomes a competent reader when he has ‘read’ the word enough times to be able to recognize it instantly. Some children need much more practice than others.

     All children need to read every day, and in addition to their ‘reading’ book, as they grow in confidence, they need a variety of reading material, including colourful and interesting books from the book corner or library. Let’s not forget to keep reading to our children—wonderful stories which children love to hear may have too many unfamiliar words or too small a print for the beginning reader.

        In my next blogs I will consider what happens to children who do not fit into the ‘best-case scenario’ and how we can help them.



Thank you for this very timely article. I will definitely tune in to hear more.

JAMbooks said...

Do you remember learning to read. I don't except for two details.
1. Standing in a line at school and reading aloud with other children in a chorus and mouthing the words I did not know. I anxiously hoping I would not be called on to read solo.

2. My mother would always read the names of the streets as we walked through Kingston.

But I must have learned pretty quickly as I read incessantly - after class, during class. Got me into trouble sometimes.

Helen said...

The only thing I remember about learning to read was a picture of a snail on a small piece of paper. Whether I'd drawn it or not, I can't recall, but it is linked with the memory of the teacher asking me if I would like to help a boy in the class. When I told her "no" I got soundly told off. I learnt that "Would you like to?" meant "You are to do it whether you like to or not."

JAMbooks said...

The key is to discover why learning to read is so difficult for so many of our children, who are quite bright in many other ways.

Pamela K Witte said...


Great information in this post. I wish all parents with children on the brink of reading would take the time to gather this knowledge. Hopefully your readership will pass this link along!

I don't remember learning to read either. But, I do recall teaching my children. Both caught on at the age of three. It started with memorization of favorite books read aloud and caught like wildfire!

Helen said...

Smart kids! I know when they started reading you kept them supplied with lots of books at the relevant reading level, and you took them to the library, so they never lost interest.