This article is based on 40 years of experience teaching English as a second language (L2) and almost 20 years of experience teaching English as L2 to students with LBLD (language-based learning difficulties). In addition to this, it is also based on long-standing experience in teaching reading and correct spelling to native English speakers.
All this experience has been translated into special methodologies and techniques to teach reading, in the first place, and then spelling, reading comprehension and the English language as a whole. In this article, we will share our out-of-the-box method, which turns non-readers and dyslexic readers into readers. Further, we will also offer our out-of-the-box ideas regarding how to introduce reading to very young children.
In every learning process, reading plays a major role. The ability to read will determine the student´s achievements and success. Therefore, a student who is unable to read will see his learning ability as profoundly limited. For this reason, the formal education system should prioritize making all necessary efforts to have as few non-readers as possible. The key is to teach reading and to improve students' reading proficiency, which, as a result, will lead to better reading comprehension and writing; better learning; and higher academic achievements.
When it comes to language acquisition, reading is crucial. It is a tool to acquire, practice, memorize and improve the learning process efficiency to obtain better results. Non-readers develop a negative approach to the language acquisition process. They feel discouraged and, more often than not, experience a loss of faith both in general and, particularly, in learning a new language. We say, based on our experience, that people who can´t read feel as if they are blind to the language and the process of acquisition. They may be able to hear it, but they often cannot "see" it.
Moreover, whenever we think about improving teaching, we think about multi-sensory activities and techniques. We all know that the learning process should appeal to the five basic senses to achieve a more comprehensive and integrative learning experience. Sight is, indeed, one of the basic senses. Taking it away from the learner lessens the effectiveness and makes language acquisition even harder on the student.
Reading should be developed as an automatic skill in order to free the mind to achieve better understanding. Reading should come out as automatically as driving or riding a bike. We don’t remind ourselves constantly to look at the mirrors while we drive, or to push the pedals of the bike in order to ride it. These activities are done automatically, without thinking. The more effort needed for decoding, the less the mind is free to understand the content it is reading. Understanding is an abstract process, while reading is highly technical. Every technical process is easier than an abstract one, as abstract is more intellect-dependent. Therefore, in order to free the mind, we need the highest possible proficiency of technical activity, namely, “decoding.”
Question: what comes first, understanding the word or reading it? This will depend whether we are talking about L1 or L2. In the case of L1, students first know the word and are familiar with it. In the case of L2, students should first be able to read the word (the technical skill) in order to familiarize with it (abstract process), as well as to later practice and remember it.
When dealing with L2, it is very important not to introduce a new word together with its visual representation if there are unfamiliar letters or reading patterns. What do we mean by reading patterns? By reading patterns, we mean all the letter combinations and effects the letters have on their neighboring letters; for example, pronunciation of the G's, the C's and the letter combination “ture” (as in picture). We have assembled most of the patterns, turned them into rules, and built a comprehensive practice program to train the reader to identify and attach sounds to each of them.
How about young children? How can we prevent dyslexic reading from a very early age?
Every parent knows that reading stories to their young child will have a great positive impact on the richness of their vocabulary. Bedtime storytelling is the best time of the day, but it can also have its disadvantages. That´s right, reading stories can have a downside, but we are going to offer a practical solution to this dilemma.
When stories are read to toddlers, they familiarize with the illustrations in the story, and, later, with the words but as pictures. Both the illustrations and then the words, therefore, are captured as a whole, as a picture. However, this does not constitute reading.
Let’s pose the following question. If a toddler can identify the word “cow” in the story, would he/she also be able to recognize the same word in a different place, out of the story? Or in a different story and different context? Moreover, would it be possible for him/her to read new words like how or ten made up from the letter appearing in cow, hen or cat? Probably not. Because, the truth is, they cannot actually read. The toddler hasn’t identified the different letters, hasn’t analyzed nor synthesized them to form new words. The young child has identified the word as a whole, as if it was a single visual representation, no different from the picture of the animal itself.
This is what I call a “global reader.” Global readers do not see the letters that compose the words and the patterns. This, naturally, results later on in poor spelling skills and difficulties in reading long, "complicated" words. Whenever a global reader encounters a new, unfamiliar, long word, he/she immediately starts an inner negative dialogue, which builds up frustration and desperation: “Why is it so difficult?” “Why is there a “G” here we don’t pronounce?” “Why are there no rules?” Endless questions are posed which lead to further frustration and slow decoding and understanding. We believe that fast decoding equals better reading comprehension. It helps retain the meaning of what is read which then is connected to one or more ideas. Poor and slow decoding causes interrupted and disconnected understanding.
Let us talk about painful “double losses”. These occur when the reader could have understood the word if he/she had read it properly. It happens when a reader, native or not, even if the meaning of the word is understood, is unable to identify and read a word and cannot resort to his previous knowledge to understand the meaning of it. For example, take the word biology. Although it may be written and pronounced differently in various languages, it sounds very similar in all of them. However, if the student is unable to read it, he/she will never be able to associate the sounds of an already familiar word as biology, not even in their own mother tongue.
To achieve fast decoding, we should first train the eye to see and identify the components of the word, i.e. each letter, individually. Only later can we introduce the patterns and the rules based on generalizations.
How do we do it with the SoftRead method? We have included a variety of activities, such as matching letters with pictures which represent their sounds; highlighting a particular letter; circling letters with the previous or following letters; coloring; copying; and pasting. Even if the student is too young to connect the sounds and read them together, he/she is still learning the link between sounds and letters and vice versa. Practicing with nonsense words is a good way of detaching the word from its meaning, making the act of reading purely technical. These pre-reading activities, even if the student cannot read yet, make them focus on and pay attention to what we want him to be aware of. In this way, we emphasize and train analysis and, later, also synthesis. Most importantly, we avoid the development of global reading and dyslexia from a very early age.
In general, dyslexia is defined as a difficulty, a disorder, a deficiency or impairment. This means that it can be remedied, trained, and improved by using the right methodology and technique.
My long teaching experience has shown me that, by using this methodology, we can not only improve the reading skills of any student, but also, and most importantly, prevent them from developing global reading and dyslexia. This is why my ultimate recommendation is to keep reading to our children and grandchildren but at the same time to introduce all the aforementioned activities, which will guarantee phonological awareness, analysis, and synthesis in reading.
My vision is that the parents and the early childhood facilitators will build phonological awareness parallel to traditional story telling.
Please check the Special Needs and Inclusive Learning course at Pilgrims website.