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Repeat after me

Because of their traditional religious lessons, children from Islamic backgrounds may use different techniques for learning to read, find Eve Gregory, Nasima Rashid and Ann Williams.

Six-year-old Sally returns home from her east London school to read Little Women. Sally's mother taught her to read from the age of 18 months. "You could read her book after book . . . it was like potty training really." Close by live her friends Nicole and Susie. Nicole's mother does not read much with her daughter but buys her fiction and non-fiction books, dictionaries and comics. Susie's mother still reads to her at bedtime. Ann-Marie from their class belongs to a drama club and learns long passages which she recites to her parents.

Down the road lives Rashid whose out-of-school reading contrasts sharply with those of his class-mates. Like many of his peers, Rashid spends between l0 and 12 hours each week at his Bengali class, where he learns to read and discuss texts, or his Qur'anic class where he is taught by the priest to match sound and symbol to enable him to recite the Holy Book. In both classes he learns by repeating sounds, words or passages after the teacher, before practising alone and eventually being tested. But he also spends many hours reading his English books with his older siblings at home. The parents of all these children view the schoolteacher, Miss M, as the "expert" and their own role as complementing hers. They have complete confidence in her, since she is "a brilliant teacher".

In the wake of the Ofsted report on reading standards in three inner London boroughs, the spotlight has concentrated on schools with poor success rates. The sensational headlines ignore the true implications of the findings which are that many teachers working in inner-city, multilingual areas need a greater or different knowledge of language and literacy development than they currently have.

Their inadequate preparation for work in multilingual schools is hardly surprising, given the lack of special provision for bilingual learners within the national curriculum. But there are dangers in focusing exclusively on the report's findings. First, there may be a rush to view one particular strategy (in this case phonics) as a panacea; second, the need for self-protection may lead teachers to blame children's families for a lack of support.

Rather than focusing on failure, it seems more valuable to examine and analyse patterns of successful reading and to use these as alternative models in initial and in-service training. This is one aim of a project we are involved in, Family Literacy History and Children's Learning Strategies at Home and at School, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and based in the Department of Educational Studies, Goldsmiths' College.

Our study is taking place with 12 families (six of Bangladeshi origin and six of indigenous English origin) with children in Years 1 and 2 in two adjacent east London schools which have a high percentage of emergent bilinguals. Two research officers (both teachers) have spent more than 400 hours in the children's homes, classes and community BengaliQur'anic classes observing, participating in and taping reading activities as well as interviewing the teachers and parents about their past and current reading.

Questions investigated are: What effect does family literacy history have on children's views of reading in school? What reading strategies do children bring from home and community to school and vice versa? How do teachers build upon children's home learning strategies?

Results have been surprising. A careful analysis of the different teaching strategies used by the indigenous English parents, Bangladeshi origin older siblings, community class teachers, Nicole and Susie (already fluent readers) as they read with younger children and our two class teachers have revealed at least a dozen teaching strategies. These range from using phonics, providing syllables, words or phrases or insisting on accuracy - which we see as text-based "scaffolding" strategies - to looking at the illustrations, discussing the author, praising and criticising, relating the text to real-life experiences - which we felt were reader-based "modelling" strategies.

Although both teachers use a different approach from the predominantly "scaffolding" strategies used in the community classes, Miss M's methods have much more in common with those of the mothers, community class teachers and siblings than those of Miss P, who relies almost entirely on modelling strategies.

But how can Miss M possibly build on all the children's strengths when there seems to be such a wide variation in children's home reading patterns? And what happens to children like Nicole whose mother provides books but leaves her to read alone? We begin to find out below.

An early years reading session is in progress. "See, that says 'bet' and the next bit says 'ter'. Put them together and it makesI ?" "Better."

A little further on the reader hesitates again. "SplI splI" She is prompted. "Look at the picture.

What do you do in puddles?" "Splash."

The next page brings the word "boys" and more hesitation."You know 'boy'. Put an 's' on the end," advises the "teacher".

This is not an experienced teacher reading with a pupil but our six-year-old Nicole reading with Aisha, a five-year-old from Year 1. By analysing Nicole's sessions with Aisha, we discovered the wide range of strategies she used to respond to Aisha's mistakes. She made use of phonics, provided words or phrases, called upon Aisha's real-world knowledge and drew Aisha's attention to illustrations.

Where has she acquired such strategies? The source of Nicole's skill is her teacher, Miss M. Every morning, Miss M reads with a group of children. During these sessions, Nicole is able to offer suggestions and corrections to other readers and, most importantly, observe closely the strategies used by Miss M. which she then transfers to her own reading "lessons".

Meanwhile, in Miss P's class, five-year-old Samina is reading a simple reading scheme book, The Magic Tree, alone and struggling to grasp the meaning.

Miss P: "Do you think he knew he was going to have a jellybean tree?" Samina: (no reply) Miss P: "How many times did you read this book at home, Samina? A little or a lot?" Samina: (whispers) "Last."

Miss P: "Lots. OK. " Samina: (whispers) "Little."

It is, perhaps, little wonder that Samina is having difficulty when we contrast this lesson with that given by her older sister at home: Sister: "With a."

Samina: "With a."

Sister: "Mermaid."

Samina: "Mermaid he."

Sister: "Gave."

Samina: "Gave."

Sister: "Her."

Samina: "Her."

Sister: "Fishy."

Samina: "Fishy."

There is an almost melodious rhythm of smooth exchanges between the two girls. Samina feels confident because she is familiar with the strategies used from her Qur'anic class; she is the learner, her sister is the learned. At first, she repeats, echoes and reads in unison with her sister. Later, she will gradually read more and more for herself, but will never be allowed to flounder alone.

Such strategies may seem very alien to our early years classrooms. But are they? Here is Miss M and her group again: Miss M: "Give Susie a chanceISusie what is it?" Susie: "Daughter."

Nicole: "Daughters, daughters."

Susie: "Help."

Rashid: "Because."

Susie: "Because it gave him aI" Nicole: "Change."

Sarah. "Chance."

Susie: "Chance to have a quick smoke. They were veryI" Nicole: "Close. "

If we continued, we would find almost all the strategies from our Bangladeshi origin siblings, the community classes, the parents and the young children themselves appearing in Miss M's lessons, as well as a variety of other strategies she uses.

So what pattern emerges from reading lessons in her class?

Reading is seen as a collaborative rather than an individual activity, whereby children often work in a group where they are able to offer suggestions and corrections to others and, above all, listen to and observe the teacher's and other children's strategies.

Group lessons are explicitly divided into sections: opening moves (talking about book, author, etc); reading the text (joint reading activity); closing moves (discussing what has been read).

Children "scaffold" each other's learning by providing words or phrases, correcting each other, repeating each other's words and sometimes reading in unison.

They are constantly asked to remember and reflect upon past learning. A high degree of accuracy is expected, but children in the group may help each other, which provides a "breathing space" for individuals.

Strategies used by teachers like Miss M may be built into the repertoire of any future reading teacher. What is important is that those working in multilingual settings for which they have not been trained need first to have more opportunity to analyse successful lessons and discuss what makes them so.

Further information about the project from Dr Eve Gregory, Department of Educational Studies, Goldsmiths' College, University of London, Lewisham Way, New Cross, SEl4 6NW. Eve Gregory is author of Making Sense of a New World: Learning to read in a second language, published by Paul Chapman

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