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Why our children aren’t learning to read in grade 1 (and what needs to be done).

November 28, 2016

Many children in South Africa come from homes where the presence of books is not the norm. They have not been read stories as they are growing up or seen their parents read books for enjoyment. It is something that only happens at school and most parents in lower economic homes see developing a love of books and learning, as the task of the school. The homes therefore have a lack of any printed material and for these children the enjoyment of the printed word and its purpose is fairly unfamiliar when they enter formal schooling.


To teach children to read they need to get accustomed to the appearance of sentences with spaces between the words and words made up of sounds. This initially requires them to learn the text ‘off by heart’ and start to recognise the visual format, whilst they are learning the auditory sounds or phonics, which takes a lot longer and develops alongside the process, until the two eventually combine.


For this process to be successful a lot of repetition and practising is required and the text needs to be constantly displayed in the classroom and used in different ways on a daily basis. Children develop at different rates and some require more practice than others. They should be divided into groups to progress at their own pace and be introduced to the next piece of text once they have mastered the vocabulary of the first piece.


In the reading schemes used successfully in the past but less popular now, the children were shown a picture which was discussed and told an accompanying story by the teacher. In the story three or four very simple sentences that were to form the written text, were used and displayed, as soon as they were mentioned (see picture of elephant and simple sentences).


The activities in the days that followed were mostly of the visual type, where sentences and words were matched, while the teacher flashed the words/sentences and the children found the like word or sentence in the known text to be able to identify it (as illustrated by the photo on the left of the teacher flashing sentences or words). Once the vocabulary of the first picture was developing well, the next picture with its story and sentences was introduced and displayed (as illustrated by the photo on the right - a few of the big pictures displayed on the wall with the accompanying big sentences).


At this initial stage all the words are ‘sight words’ as the children do not yet have the skills to decode the words using phonic sounds but as this develops they start to make use of this skill as well. It takes approximately three years for them to master all the phonic sounds of the English language but other languages have less complicated phonetic structures and this should come into play sooner in the process.


Once the understanding of a sentence being made up of separate words has developed, this skill should be used to practise the vocabulary in different ways (see below left picture with learners pointing and reading). The words can be printed on small individual cards and each child should have a container of words and a booklet with the pictures and sentences that gets practised at home daily (see below middle picture with matching sentences). These words can also be used in class to build sentences different to those in the text, therefore bringing about better comprehension. These sentences can be recorded as a regular language task. This booklet only contains the vocabulary of the main reading series – initially the pictures, sentences and words and later the new words being learnt that are used in each book (see below right picture which shows pages of words to be learnt when the reading has advanced beyond the initial big pictures and words).


In every language there are ‘high frequency’ words that are used regularly and it is important to develop these as quickly as possible, as they occur most frequently in written text and are often words that are difficult for children to decode, especially in English e.g. the, here, we, she, he, me, where, what, mommy, daddy etc. Since the basic alphabet is taught phonetically these words sound nonsensical when sounded out by the child and they need to be taught as ‘sight words’ which are immediately recognised.


 Some of these words are, of course, included in the text they are learning that accompanies the pictures of the basic reading series but it would be very beneficial to make a separate reading book (vocabulary book) in which other prepared sentences are pasted and illustrated and which creates additional opportunities for practising of regularly used vocabulary. This is a blank A4 exercise book with the sentences pasted across the top, under which the child matches and pastes the loose words or later in the year copies them and draws appropriate pictures. It could also be a book put together by the teacher with photocopied sentences and pictures to colour in. It is the illustration that initially helps with the recognition of the sentence on that page (as seen in the picture on the left).



This vocabulary reading book will develop in addition to, but alongside, the series of initial pictures with text that is teaching the vocabulary required for the child to be able to read the printed reading books of the reading series. As the year progresses and the initial set of pictures and sentences has been completed, this vocabulary book will be used alongside the reading books of the series and constantly assist in teaching the new vocabulary required for each new book. This separate vocabulary book would always have some repetition but also introduce new words from the child’s environment and experiences each time e.g. This is me. This is mommy. This is daddy. I love my brother and sister. I love my granny and grandpa. This is my house. I play in my garden. I play with my toys. I play with my friend. etc. (see picture above and to the right). The words from these sentences can be added to the child’s container that get practiced and used to build new, different sentences for written tasks and activities daily.


In addition to the books of the basic reading series being used, there should also be books from other series, as all the beginner books of every series make use of the same high frequency vocabulary, with usually just the names of the characters in the stories differing. The children should read broadly on a level from these other available series, while the vocabulary for the next book of the main series is being taught. A child should not be handed a book before the vocabulary has been mastered, as this just serves to create self-doubt and a low self-image.


In these structured reading schemes, together with the accompanying systems developed by the teachers to bolster the learning of required vocabulary, as mentioned above, there was a lot of repetition and use of the words in additional tasks. This is sorely lacking in the present day system of using Big Books, often with a large class and no ability group teaching, where many cannot see and the script is too small. The text is seldom displayed in the classroom after reading the book and there is simply not sufficient repetition to master the vocabulary before moving on to the next Big Book with a new story and many new words. A lot of time seems to be spent discussing the pictures and the cover and title page and pre-empting what the book might be about and not enough time on the printed word. The children are often required to write sentences using new words but the previous words are seldom displayed and they find the task almost impossible, yet it is often the only written activity the teachers give them.


This system with Guided Reading, Shared Reading, Paired Reading etc. that is presently being used in most schools, simply does not provide the structure and repetition that any but the very bright children or those from print rich homes require to learn to read and is therefore excluding a vast number of our children.


The situation is further complicated by the very full curriculum and once the children leave Grade 1 the teachers do not find the time to do the intervention required to teach the basic skill of reading. This becomes even more of a problem when they leave the Foundation Phase where they ‘learn to read’, as once they enter the Intermediate Phase they need to ‘read to learn’ and are completely adrift without the skill of reading.

To recap – the material suggested:

  • A series of big pictures with accompanying big sentences for initial teaching of reading that introduces the characters and basic vocabulary of the first books they will read (picture at the bottom on the left).

  • These sentences on strips and separate words on flashcards, in big format, for regular drilling by the teacher (picture at the bottom second from left).

  • A support booklet made by the teacher with the pictures and sentences and separate containers/bank bags of small format sentences and words of this same material, for individual practice, which can be taken home and also used in class for reading, matching activities and building of different sentences (picture at the bottom third from left).

  • An additional ‘vocabulary book’ introducing other high frequency words from the child’s environment that increase the vocabulary required for sentence writing and can also pre-empt the teaching of the words required for reading the next book in the main series (picture at the bottom on the right).

  • Books from other series so that they can read broadly on a level before advancing and while vocabulary is being taught in preparation for the next book of the main series.



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