Friday, February 24, 2012

Learning to Read

Child in Tanzania reading a book. Original cap...                              Image via WikipediaBy Chris O'Donoghue

I am an experienced teacher of mathematics in schools, to children aged between 8 and 18 years. I now go into my local middle school and help with a few mathematics lessons, and it is a most enlightening experience.

So what has this got to do with learning to read? Those of you who work in this important area of a child's life will know more about it than I do, but I have recently been giving the matter a lot of thought as I have been working with a 10 year old with a reading age of below 5 years. Why did Tommy fail to read as a young child? What went wrong with his development? Could I turn the clock back 5 or 6 years for this child? Could I use the method which works for a child of 4 or 5?

To my mind, the most important activity which prepares children to become readers, is to read to them while they can see the book. They see these strange shapes on the page and quickly realise that they are words which string together to make a story. This provides the best preparation for learning: motivation. I must add here, of course, that a child will still enjoy the attention she or he enjoys when an adult reads to them, so don't be surprised if they learn slowly!

Sadly, Tommy must have missed out on this process for reasons I do not know. The effect on him has been devastating. I can imagine that as a young child, seeing that others in his class could read while he could not, led him to believe that he was not very bright. If he was not very clever, then he must have thought that he was not worth much as a person.

I came across him in mathematics lessons when he was 9 years old. It was obvious as I watched him work, that his powers of reasoning were considerable. And this child could hardly read!

By this time, Tommy was 10 years old. I undertook to help him with his reading, and I am pleased to say that we - Tommy and I - have been successful. Now aged 12, he does not read for pleasure, but he can manage most of his own needs where words are concerned.

So why did we manage it? Although his teachers had tried to help him in the past, he was one child in a class of many. I succeeded because I could work one-to-one with him.

There was another important ingredient: trust. I offered to help him as an unpaid volunteer because I could not stand aside and see such intelligence going to waste in one so young. I believed in his ability and told him so. As his self-esteem improved, so did he as a person.

The reading material he used was aimed at children of his age. He didn't have to read the adventures of Pinky the Poodle - or whatever!

So what works?

Tommy is obviously intelligent, although it is always best to start with the assumption that a child is bright.

Encouragement works, but only if it is honest. If you tell a child he is doing fantastically well when he is not, he will see through you and you will lose his trust. Remember, he is intelligent.

Patience and determination on the part of the adult are essential. You have to provide both when your pupil begins to waver.

Don't rush things. Bewilder your pupil with a Latin motto festina lente: "make haste slowly."

Forget about whether you should be using phonics, or rote of whatever. Who cares? What counts is the personal touch and your care for your pupil.

Improve a child's reading and you change that child's life.

When are you going to start?

Chris O'Donoghue is the author of an ebook "Mathematics To Do," samples of which can be seen at He has also written "Charlie's Reading Rescue - Improve an Older Child's Reading," a book to support poor readers. Details are at

Article Source:'Donoghue
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