The riddle of reading

From the time a small child could crawl he had an instinctive response to the words, "It's story time." Once there was a mystical allure which could cause otherwise active children to sit enraptured for relatively long periods of time, concentrating on something they often couldn't fully understand?  What was this magic? More importantly, where has it gone?

Why are so many children now failing in their reading? Could it be that we're simply not measuring their success correctly? Or has something sinister really happened to cause this unprecedented failure in children's reading abilities? In recent years the processes involved in children's acquisition of literary language, which is different from spoken language in a number of parameters, have been interrupted by well-meaning but mislead intermediaries, under guidelines from the Israeli Education Department. Teacher Training colleges are instructing teachers in methodologies which do more harm than good without the teachers realizing it until it is too late and with superintendents ignorant of the consequences.

In any average 4th grade classroom in Israel you should find there are children reading at some point during the day.  After the age of ten most learning is achieved through reading and not through frontal instruction.  The teacher's function has moved into the realm of guiding, explaining, answering questions, directing the child to sources, troubleshooting, encouraging, listening and responding to the child.  In this day and age effective learning can only be accomplished through the written word and rarely, perhaps in exceptional cases of special education, is any learning done without the written word. The medium of presentation may have changed in recent years to include the internet, PCs, laptops, tablets, IPhones, television and other electronic aids but certainly learning through the written word only ever increases, whatever the medium of presentation.  Hopefully not only will reading be used as the foremost source of a child's education; it will become a great source of pleasure for him, a realm of discovery, of the exchange of ideas and a door to a wonderland of what his mind is capable of.

The development of the skill of reading is of such vital importance that the first three years of schooling are mainly devoted to it. The easiest way to assess technical reading skills (the deciphering of letter symbols) and reading comprehension skills (understanding the meaning of passages of text) on a large or national scale is through standardized testing.  During recent decades, a troubling phenomenon has appeared, in that an incongruous number of pupils tested have been failing these exams.  Sadly these results are consistently repeated no matter the testing parameters being used and in an effort to waylay the problem educators around the world are constantly upgrading their teaching methods and course requirements.  Still the results remain the same in that the focus of pupils' failure in most cases is not that they are failing to decipher but to understand. Some suggested answers to the panic question of why this is so often focus on the demons of our modern lifestyle – junk food, medications or immunizations, heavy duty sanitation products, artificial food additives, pollution, which all may produce undetectable allergic reactions or the electromagnetic effects of exposure to computers, television or IPhones. Any of these could have an effect on learning behaviors in children by diminishing their concentration, reducing attention span, inhibiting their cognitive abilities, increasing allergic reactions or producing a general lethargy. Each of these culprits certainly may bear a measure of responsibility, though to what degree science is still debating; however they do not carry all the blame.  One of the frustrating aspects of this problem is that children don't come labeled.  A majority of children, hopefully, will succeed in their reading comprehension skills but until a child is older, and the damage already done, it cannot be known into which category to classify him, those who are doomed to fail or those who will succeed.

Research literature points to a failure of phonological processing, an aspect of deciphering skill, as one of the causes of breakdown in reading development. It is easy to identify when the technical skill of deciphering is taught, the exact period when a child first learned their ABCs (or whatever the relevant alphabet) can usually be pinpointed but how does one locate when the child learned 'understanding'?

Reading is defined in various ways, depending on which text book is open, but the definitions don't help us understand the problem. The following are requirements suggested by the author of five conditions under which it can be said that reading has actually been accomplished:

Hearing of the Inner Voice

Seeing the whole picture

Building hypotheses

Accessing read and repair strategies

Availability of memory retrieval through association

Tracing the progression of these requirements reveals the points of breakdown of each one, where interference puts a block on development leading to reading failure or impairment which can follow a student all the way to University. It also puts light on ways to rehabilitate damaged reading skills and to prevent the wrong kind of interference which caused the breakdown of processes in the first place.