A Year of Reading: Reading – Yes, But…

In Dr Kornel Kossuth’s seventh post for us as he continues on in his challenge to promote reading for pleasure during the school day, he discusses the connection between reading and understanding; and why it’s so important to make sure reading is both enjoyable and meaningful.

I’m sure we’ve all seen something similar: a ten-year-old pupil with a Dan Brown or Nineteen Eighty-Four under their arm, proudly showing off their level of reading, as if reading were some kind of competition. And how often do comprehension exercises show that pupils may have read a text, but not understood it?

Ultimately, reading is not reading.

As I always tell my pupils, I could read a book in Romanian, but would it mean anything to me? No. Of course not. Reading is more than letting your eyes skim over the letters and sticking them together, or letting your mouth form words. Reading is so much more, and involves knowing what words mean, and decoding sentence constructions. It is like trying to read a treasure map, with grammar being the steps you take and the words being the various locations to look out for. It is discovering how far the meaning of a word can stretch and how it is affected by sentence structure and the words surrounding it.

Good readers have a varied vocabulary. What this means for developing readers is that when reading they ideally need a dictionary or at least a piece of paper and a pencil next to them, so they can look up or write down words with which they are unfamiliar. Using these words in their conversation, be it ever so artificial, will help them cement their knowledge.

Equally, good readers have a solid grasp of sentence constructions. While this is harder to learn, as it involves some technical vocabulary and a fairly abstract examination of language, it is vital that pupils can recognize a main clause and subordinate or coordinate clauses.

With the focus on fun lessons and making learning engaging, skills such as parsing and a lot of grammar seems to have been side-lined, with devastating effects on reading. Yet the two are communicating vessels: reading helps with sentence construction and sentence construction helps with reading. We simply have to find the time to read with pupils and explain sentences to them as they are read. This is a task that school alone cannot do, which is why reading with parents is so important, especially at the beginning.

A lot of senior schools despair at the level of proficiency of pupils in grammar, with basics such as full stops and capital letters being more hit and miss than secure. Reading can give that security – indeed, it is impossible to read, meaning to understand, without having a keen awareness of full stops. So, let’s read, by all means, but let’s make sure that reading is meaningful and leads to understanding.

Kornel Kossuth has loved English since a young age and began teaching it to children ten years ago. Before turning to teaching, he was a lawyer and (briefly) a diplomat. A published poet, poetry busker and poetry blogger, he is also the author of a number of English resources and is currently working on textbooks for years 7 and 8.

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