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How reading for meaning works

Hugh Gillespie, principal English teacher in Drumchapel High, is a strong believer in Colin Harrison's approach and has developed a literacy improvement programme based on "reading for meaning" which Glasgow's education department aims to spread more widely in its drive to improve basic skills.

Mr Gillespie suggests the best way of helping pupils master reading skills required when they "confront the unfamiliar" is through handling non-narrative texts. "In secondary schools, fictional narrative is often the only source of tuition in developing reading skills," he says. But lack of experience of non-fiction texts will handicap progress.

Teachers use printed texts to convey factual information "often in a relatively unsupported manner. Pupils require to be able to process such texts to become independent learners, yet we neglect to provide them with appropriate strategies which will enable them to succeed. Reading is treated as a passive-reactive experience. We offer pupils a text and then ask them to answer selected questions about it in order to assess whether they have understood it.

"And if they fail to get the 'right answer'? Do we tell them to read the text again, having already eliminated possible 'wrong' answers? Do we provide the expected answer, handing them the knowledge? Have we advanced their reading skills? Unlikely."

Mr Gillespie suggests the most effective way to develop reading is in groups. Teachers should spend time "anticipating the text" by generating interest in it, eliciting pupils' prior knowledge and making clear to pupils before they start what is expected at the end. The principle should be "talk first, read later".

The objective before "interrogating the text" should be to help pupils gain control over it. "The new becomes exciting rather than alien," Mr Gillespie states.

He supports the use of DARTs in "prising meaning from text" but warns: "Too often the activity becomes an end in itself. The child engages in the activity and is seen to succeed or fail. The DARTs strategy is not used to develop reading skill but to determine levels of attainment."

Mr Gillespie emphasises the value of group activities. "They encourage pupils to read forward, to check back, to reflect on text, to discuss possibilities, to amend ideas in the light of such discussion, to respond to and to interpret the material they read. It is not a 'right answer' approach but a genuine process of engaging text in order to develop skills.

"The teacher requires sensitivity in handling the discussion which accompanies these activities. We are making the implicit explicit and promoting self-esteem among our learners."

The result is that skills learnt in the English class can be transferred to the science or history text.

Mr Gillespie says other teachers need to be more aware of the language demands of their subject and "to reinforce this awareness for pupils". Limitations are being placed on learning by pupils' inability to handle information.

But he acknowledges that improvement in reading for meaning will not come overnight. "There is still considerable work to be done, considerable information to be gathered. In addition, there are implications for staff training and development."

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