Reading to teach

Nidhi Gaur

“Please, don’t ask me to read. Can you suggest a few activities that I can use in my class,” asked a primary school teacher, who was irritated by a suggestion. The teacher was a bit perplexed about teaching first-grade students to read. She wanted to know how to facilitate the development of reading skills of six-year old early readers.

An early reader requires an engaging print-rich environment along with many opportunities to read and express. For instance, to engage an early reader, a poem can be displayed on a wall that is most accessible to the students in the classroom. This poem can be read together by the teacher and the students a few times. The poem can be changed every fortnight or even earlier. Over a period of time, early readers build a strong vocabulary, which facilitates reading. To engage with an early reader, a teacher himself needs to enjoy reading and storytelling because teachers serve as role models for students. Thus, a teacher who is never seen reading cannot encourage reading. The habit of reading is one of the pre-requisites to becoming a teacher.

In teaching, there are no quick-fixes or uniform solutions that will suit all teachers because teachers are engaging with children, who have their own way of making sense of the world around them. Their ways are influenced by their experiences of primary socialization. These varied ways often leave teachers perplexed. This brings us to another use of reading in the professional life of a teacher.

One of the best sources of engaging with these everyday issues for teachers is offered by the world of literature. Texts are available on nearly every problem that the teacher faces in class in the form of writings of other teachers, teacher-educators, philosophers, psychologists, linguists, so on and so forth. These texts may help the teacher pinpoint the hidden cause of the problem, or they may inspire him, or help develop a sense of belongingness to the teaching community at a much broader temporal and spatial level. The text can guide him to a possible solution by making the teacher agree or disagree with it. Sometimes, discussing these texts with other teachers can also help in unimaginable ways. These discussions bring teachers together, can make teachers reflective and self-aware. It can help teachers in anticipating a consequence of their action and then dealing with it. Most importantly, it makes the teachers aware of the life-stage their students are going through.

Secondly, the growth of a teacher depends on the continuous cycle of problem finding and problem solving. This is supported by reading. This particular example of an agitated teacher looking for a quick-fix is indicative of the naturally occurring problems that confound the teacher. The solution to this problem lies in drawing from and applying theory. To engage with this problem, the teacher needs to familiarize herself with the texts that explain the process of language acquisition in children. Then the teacher needs to find ways in which these theories could be used creatively in her class. Some of her strategies may work, some might fail, either way she will grow as a teacher. If the teacher wishes to grow through such engagement, then she would be embarking on a rewarding, life-long journey of learning through the teaching profession.

Sylvia Ashton Warner, an educator and writer from New Zealand, embraced the teaching profession with such zeal and creativity. She describes the creative techniques that she used to teach Maori children in her book, Teacher. She engaged with pedagogic problems and used locally available resources to find possible solutions.

Further, Warner indicates another aspect of a teacher’s life that is facilitated by reading, which is, writing. A cycle of problem finding and problem solving requires the teacher to reflect on his classroom experience. These reflections enrich not only that particular teacher’s life but when shared with other teachers, they create opportunities for discussion. This sharing of experiences helps in forming a community of teachers by linking one to the other through the written word.

In this way, reading informs the act of teaching. A teacher, irrespective of the grade she is teaching, cannot escape reading. If she has been teaching without being mindful of her own learning requirements then she is doing a huge disservice to the students, her profession but most importantly, to herself.

The author is an Associate Editor at Ektara, Takshila’s Centre for Children’s Literature and Art. She can be reached at ni.gaur@gmail.com.