As we move deeper into the digital era, we are faced with new challenges for the future of our education system. Independent online learning and unlimited access to information is our new reality. We are striving to adapt to innovative new ideas, to release familiar old ways, and to step up and out of comfort zones into dazzling new ways of thinking and responsiveness in a faster-paced world.
In an age in which skilled manual labour is increasingly being replaced by robots and highly sophisticated technology, reading at a ‘functional’ level has become a massively out-dated concept. Similarly, the widespread practice of training children to answer a question about a written passage by identifying a key word in the question, locating it in the text and then writing out the sentence that surrounds it, is not only a waste of time, but this sham practice is harmful: it allows children to assume that reading is nothing more than a mundane word search exercise.
A specific and urgent challenge for educators today is this: to find new strategies that will equip children to read with understanding. The current emphasis on systematic phonics is disproportionate. We must remember that because phonemes are the smallest sounds of language, each phoneme occupies only a tiny proportion of any sentence, amounting in natural speech to only a fraction of a second. This is why a disproportionate amount of time spent on phonics can interfere with the development of reading with ease, fluency and good comprehension.
Reading well is a feat of delicate coordination between the reader’s eyes, ears and mind in alignment with the ‘voice’ of the author. Achieving this alignment is the process that allows the reader to assimilate meaning as it ‘flies’ off the page (or screen) into the reader’s consciousness.
Reading well depends on an intuitive response to the underlying binary relationship between the subject and predicate in every sentence. The syntax determines the rhythmic structure of the sentence. Consequently, the rhythmic ebb and flow of written language should be felt as intuitively as the rhythmic ebb and flow of speech, even though styles of writing and of speech vary widely. The sentence as a whole and coherent unit is vibrant, elastic and flexible with its meaning perceived not through the synthesis of its many phonemes, but through its overall rhythm and structure.
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As educators we are required to make thousands of small but important decisions everyday. Striking the right balance involves blending professional judgement with our integrity and experience. Through reflection perhaps with colleagues, we are constantly learning from our experiences.
I have been thinking hard about special education (SEND) recently. Rhythm for Reading is an inclusive programme. Students with learning differences are fully involved alongside their classmates and the programme is accessible even to those who cannot yet read simple words such as ‘cat’. This is what a child said recently to me about the programme: “I liked how we had to keep it in the team at the same time. I felt more surrounded. I had people to keep me upright.” So, when a pupil shows absolutely no desire to contribute to even the most basic of Rhythm for Reading exercises, whilst all around him others are learning rapidly and having fun, my own personal learning journey fires up in a big way.
Each Rhythm for Reading session is only ten minutes long and so every second is precious. Is this child withdrawn, overwhelmed, lacking in confidence, lacking social skills, frightened or generally resistant to new things? What is clear and of concern to me is that he is ignored by the other children and hardly responds to anything I say or do. His teachers are highly protective of him and they can recite a list of issues and medical problems: he is a special child.
I believe that if a child processes and performs tasks more slowly than his classmates, as educators we must help him to develop the strategies that he needs to adapt to different settings. Self-regulation strategies for example, are key for learning road safety skills: learning to judge the speed of traffic, inhibiting the impulse to wander into the road, as well as being able to find a safe place to cross are essential to every child’s survival, no matter how special that child’s needs might be. While road safety lessons are clearly a matter of life and death, it is the quality of life of each child that is determined in the classroom. To teach a special child to cope with a broad range of settings with confidence is a highly worthwhile investment of our time and energy. There are so many benefits of joining in with others in a structured group activity. It is enormous fun and a profound sense of belonging and unity develops through cooperation. Of course, this outcome can only be fully enjoyed by everyone, if everyone has contributed wholeheartedly to the success of the task.
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