The first ‘R’

Gita Nambiar

It is a matter of great concern, yet a fact, that many children, even in grades VIII and IX, are unable to read a sentence in English. It is a wake-up call for all teachers of English! When the medium of instruction across boards and syllabi is English, it is a pre-requisite for every child studying in an English medium school to be able to read the language.

The acquisition of this skill has been side-lined in our educational system. The inability to read English affects scholastic ability in other subjects as well, including math. How does a child attempt an examination question paper if he or she is unable to read the questions? The teacher cannot be expected to read out every question to such children. The outcome is either an answer sheet that is mostly blank or with answers unrelated to the question. The difficulties increase manifold as the child moves to a higher grade.

Close attention needs to be paid to this aspect of language right from the primary grades. We teach children the letters of the alphabet in kindergarten and gradually move on to words and sentences. Children are taught complex words, parts of speech and grammar, with pages of class work and homework meticulously filled in day after day.

As teachers of English, we need to hone their reading skills as well. It is interesting to note that very young children from the western English-speaking countries, read fluently and accurately, as compared to their counterparts in our country. Perhaps we are laying greater stress on written work. Children should be made to read in classrooms as a daily exercise, with each child being given a chance to read for at least 10 minutes. Parents can also be asked to reinforce the same at home. There is no better way to improve reading than by constant practice.

The teacher’s role in the acquisition of reading skills is pivotal. It is important for a teacher to read every day, to set an example, as well as demonstrate reading with expression and prosody. In the early years, teaching phonetics has been proved to be extremely effective in fostering reading. Phonemic awareness, if not already present, has to be taught to the child. The child may also be made aware of letters and words in the environment around him. Teaching word families and rhyming is also a fun way to develop an interest in words. Children may be encouraged to sound out words as they read. Simultaneously, sight words can also be presented to the child, since they are an integral component of sentences. While teaching letters, sounds and words, a multi-sensory approach, incorporating as many senses as possible, with activities targeting the child’s areas of interest, is productive.

For older children, teachers can make them read a variety of reading materials like books, magazines, CDs, advertisements, newspaper articles and even recipes. Making connections to their personal lives and asking questions as they read adds meaning to the text. They may be encouraged to annotate and highlight what they read, to aid comprehension. Reading a variety of books and identifying the genre creates an interest in the activity. Each child may be encouraged to set a reading goal and work towards it. Reading can be done in smaller portions rather than entire chapters. Children may be asked to identify difficult words when they read at home, write them on cards and bring them to school. In class, the teacher can conduct a discussion about the meanings so that all the children can learn new words and their meanings. Regular visits to the school library and holiday assignments involving reading books and summarizing them, also helps inculcate the reading habit. In the class, groups can be formed with a mix of children having varying levels of proficiency in the language, so that the brighter ones can assist the weaker ones in reading projects.

As a special educator, I have witnessed the transformation in a child’s academic skills, as he begins to read fluently. Not only does he gain confidence with his newfound ability to read question papers and respond as expected of him, but he is also able to pay greater attention to comprehension. He is better equipped to tackle the other subjects as well and score better grades. In math, he is able to read and understand word problems and is more likely to solve them accurately. A definite boost to his low self-esteem!

An enhanced ease with reading also motivates the child to communicate in English. This will stand him in good stead in the years to come, as he journeys through school and moves on to college. At the threshold of entering the work force, where one has to face numerous interviewers, good reading and speaking skills are a bonus and work in favour of the candidate.

The benefits of reading are an improvement in vocabulary, writing skills, concentration and cognitive development, which lays a strong foundation for learning, throughout one’s lifetime. Thus, this is an earnest appeal to all teachers of English to make your students, even those as young as first graders, read text as often as possible.

The author works as a Special Educator at Prayatna, Chennai. She can be reached at
gitanambiar2010@gmail.com.