18 May 2011
By TYE WUEY PING
I HAD my usual in-the-car-on-the-way-to-school conversation with my seven-year-old daughter one morning and casually threw her this question: “Debs, how did you learn to read?”
“I learnt it in school.”
“Yeah, but how?” I wanted her to think deeper.
“Mrs X taught me.”
“Taught you what?”
“I think it was the phonics, then we used the I Can Read book.”
“That’s for English, right? How about for Malay? How did you learn to read Malay?”
“You know, we learnt the sukukata (syllables) ... B-A = BA ... and all.”
My daughter gave examples of how they had learnt to recite consonant-vowel combinations in Malay, very similar to how I had been instructed over 30 years back.
“And how about Chinese?”
“Ms Y taught us. We had to remember the strokes and all the words.”
“You mean the characters ... and wasn’t I involved in teaching you reading in all these languages?”
Hearing her answer, my heart sank to the floor.
My dear daughter clearly did not recognise the fact that I had laid the much-needed foundations for reading through all the nights of bedtime stories and singing silly songs with rhyming words in them. I patiently put that aside and continued my conversation with her about reading.
With a smile, I pounced on my chance at pulling her leg.
“You know, dear, I didn’t learn any phonics like you did when I was in kindy, yet I can read and read better than you, hah!”
“I’m trying to explain here that we actually were taught quite differently but there must be something similar happening in our brains to help us learn to read.”
Our conversation ended there. I guessed she had more important things occupying her mind, such as how she’d spend the weekend than to dwell on this seemingly abstract topic.
So, for those of you reading till this point: How did YOU learn to read?
If you are in your 30s (or older), you’d probably not ventured into the world of phonics in preschool days, and your answer may be similar to my dear husband’s: “How would I know? I just did.”
Well, researchers have scrutinised the development of reading in children and agreed that there are important basic cognitive processes required for reading acquisition.
Professor Uta Frith, a renowned neuroscientist with vast works on developmental dyslexia, proposed the theory of reading acquisition (in her 1985 paper Beneath The Surface Of Developmental Dyslexia) to include strategies or processes where:
> Firstly, children instantly recognise familiar whole words (logographic skills).
> Secondly, they learn to use decoding strategies or letter-sound rules to make out words, especially new or unknown words (alphabetical skills).
> Finally, they obtain remarkable analytic and systematic synthesis (orthographic skills), where reading becomes somewhat non-visual and non-phonological as there is a ready “dictionary” for all the words previously encountered.
This means that one does not need to rely on visual units or patterns (as in the logographic stage) and they no longer decode letters and sounds individually (as in the alphabetical stage). Skilled readers just do it (orthographically)!
Reading programmes (for English) out there place emphasis on symbol recognition, whole word or sight word learning, learning of letter names and letter sounds (phonics) and rhyming strategies or combinations of them. Take note here that learning to read involves both visual and auditory processing.
Children need to make sense of the visual patterns in letters and combinations of them, and of the sounds (as well as sound combinations) in words.
A good grasp of oral (or spoken) language equally matters as this forms the important foundation on which reading comprehension is built.
I often get this question: Do telling and reading stories help children in their reading skills?
The answer is a strong “yes”.
Reading skills are built upon oral language skills and comprehension skills. Adults are encouraged to responsively interact with a child to build knowledge of and love towards reading.
These are some areas that parents can work on in helping a young child build up his/her early reading skills:
> Flap books and touch-feel books promote attentiveness and stimulate explorative skill in younger children.
> Read aloud picture books together. Pictures and context help with making sense of print and new vocabulary. Relate this to the environment of your child.
> Sing songs together (not just the ABC song) to learn new words and rhyming words.
> Highlight new words and how they sound alike to some words they already know.
> Point out symbols and signages around the environment and associated meaning to them.
> Set a good reading habit yourself.
How do we know whether or not a child has a reading disorder (dyslexia)?
Dyslexia is generally defined as a specific difficulty in learning to read, despite normal intelligence, absence of sensory impairment and adequate educational instruction. Therefore, there is a need to discern between illiteracy which is inability to read due to lack of exposure and training, versus having an actual reading disorder.
For example, a child with normal IQ, with little or no access to literature, may be considered illiterate at age seven, but when given adequate instruction, he or she may acquire reading skills readily.
On the contrary, a child showing difficulty with conventional teaching of reading, poor memory for new words, deficits in phonological processing (e.g. remembering sounds and patterns of sounds, sequencing sounds) and/or weak visual processing skills may be dyslexic.
Children with such difficulties may confuse similar-looking and/or similar-sounding letters, present with phonological reading errors (e.g. beer/bear) and/or visual errors in reading (e.g. saw/sew).
Dyslexia is often over-diagnosed in our multilingual community, where a child is exposed to more than one language. It is advisable to have a child further evaluated by specialists (e.g. educational/developmental psychologists, speech-language pathologists, specialist teachers) if parents suspect any difficulty in learning to read and/or spell.
Continuing my earlier personal sharing, after two days, my daughter shared this: “Mum, I know now how I learnt to read. First, I learnt the alphabet, then the blends, then the words.”
My answer was: “Good that you’ve thought about it.”
Lastly, a word of thanks to my daughter’s dedicated preschool teachers who made sure she had the basics for reading before formal schooling years.
■ Tye Wuey Ping is a practising speech-language pathologist with 12 years’ experience working with children and adults. She is a committee member of the Malaysian Association of Speech-Language and Hearing. She will be conducting a parents and teachers workshop on Uncovering Reading Problems In Children, in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, on Saturday, May 28. For more information, contact Coreen at 013-330 1728 or e-mail email@example.com.
This article was copied from ParenThots, The Star-Online