How do children experience learning to read at school?

Alice Pascoe Hale is a Key Stage 2 teacher and Head of Learning and Teaching in an inner-London primary school. She conducted her research after becoming increasingly aware that the children she was teaching found it difficult to select books that they wanted to read, and to concentrate on reading. Many expressed negative attitudes towards reading, and in particular, towards reading at school. She began to think that the way we teach children to read and relate to books in England has gone badly wrong. The aim of the research was to better understand, from the point of view of the children, how they experienced learning to read at school. To do this, she created a Photographic Instrument, which enabled children to tell their own story of reading and the process of learning to read, from their own point of view.


pre-school%201[1]I believe that reading is the single most important skill that children can learn. Indeed, Guthrie and Wigfield (2000) suggest that engaged readers provide themselves with self-generated learning opportunities that are equivalent to several years of education This belief in importance of reading, paired with the knowledge that teachers and their practices are considered to be among the significant facts affecting the process of learning to read (Harste et al. 1984, Meek et al. 1983, Smith, 1982, Nomikou, 1991) mean that it is critical that we fully understand the implications of way in which we are currently teaching children to read.

A pivotal piece of research for me was an article by Lever-Chain (2008), Turning boys off? Listening to what five-year-olds say about reading. Lever-Chain argued that the current widespread skills-based approach to reading may be damaging reading attitudes in some children. She suggested that children often encountered reading as a target, and the process of learning as a hurdle rather than a pathway. This in turn was eroding the pleasure that children could derive from reading.

In my view, the situation as described by Lever-Chain was being further compounded by the UK Government sponsored Rose Report, which endorsed an early start to the formal reading process, recommending that a systematic (synthetic) programme of phonic work be implemented by the age of five, if not before (Rose, 2006, p.29). This focus, on synthetic phonics, seemed to be drawing attention away from books and the development of any kind of relationship between children and books. My concerns were also be echoed in the wider press, with the British children’s author Michael Rosen commenting “There is a huge push to create an environment … where books are secondary to the process of reading. This seems oxymoronic to me. We must have at the heart of learning to read the pleasure that is reading. Otherwise why bother? You could learn phonics, learn how to read and then put it behind you and watch telly – you’re given no reason to read. There are many ways in which people learn how to read; the idea that there is one way is an outrageous fib.” (Pauli, 2007).

Data collected by PIRLs in 2006 also presented an alarming picture, reporting that “children in England had less positive attitudes to reading than children in most other countries and their attitudes were somewhat poorer than in 2001. Of particular concern is the 15 per cent of children in the sample for England who had the least positive attitudes, a significant increase from 2001” (Twist et al., 2007, p.32).

I therefore decided that I wanted to understand more about what the research tells us about how children learn to read, and – perhaps most crucially – how children view the experience of reading and learning to read at school.

What is my school like?

imagesCAB4NJTQMy school is a single form entry school, quite isolated, in the north of a west London borough. My school has a diverse community and ethnic mix. It has three main community languages: English, Portuguese and Somali. The proportion of pupils for whom English is an additional language is almost three times the national average. The proportion of pupils known to be eligible for the pupil premium is higher than average. The proportion of disabled pupils and those with special educational needs is above average.

What did I do?

I wanted to understand not just what children’s current attitudes to reading were, but what actually underpinned those attitudes. Traditional attitudinal questionnaires would not provide a full enough picture, and are also known to have a positive bias when administered with children (Lever-Chain, 2002, p.138). As such, they may serve as general indicators, but cannot provide information about the diverse and complex beliefs and ideas that underpin children’s responses. I therefore decided to adopt a qualitative methodology, in order to better understand the subjective experiences of the participants.

reading_buddy[1]Furthermore, I developed and revised a Photographic Instrument, based upon the PRAI (Photographic Reading Attitude Instrument), which was initially used by Redelheim in 1975, and then further developed by Lever-Chain (2002) for her study into the effect of age-of-entry on boys’ reading attitudes. Given the lapse in time between Lever-Chain’s study and my own, and our differing foci, I chose to revise the tool, using my own images. Following-on from Redelheim (1976), who printed his photographs through a screen in order to create a dotted effect, ambiguous as to detail, I used a filter to make the content of my photographs more ambiguous. The value of this approach, argued Redelheim, is that it provides the child with the opportunity to respond as if he/she were in the picture. Some of the images in the photographic instrument are used to illustrate this article.  The children were asked to respond to the images with a choice of three stickers. These represented their feelings about the particular activity as: “I like”, “I don’t mind” and “I don’t like”. The children were shown each photograph in turn, and then asked to tell the interviewer about the image. These interviews were then recorded, transcribed and analysed.

What happened?

The way that children understood reading was very varied. The children with more positive attitudes clearly saw themselves as readers, and used the phrase “I like reading” throughout their interviews. The children with the less positive attitudes did not use this phrase. Additionally, the children with more positive attitudes clearly understood not all children did like reading, and each of them made explicit reference to this in their interviews. The children with the least positive attitudes did not refer this to in the same, explicit sense.

It is notable that the children in my study with the most positive attitudes were also the most able readers. The children with the least positive attitudes had all experienced some difficultly in learning to read. The results of this study would appear to run counter to the Rose Review’s claim that ‘quality first teaching’, based upon the explicit teaching of synthetic phonics, works for the significant number of children who begin their reading journey at a disadvantage (Rose Review, 2006, p.5).

When talking about the photographs that depicted phonics situations, overall the children did rate them particularly negatively, or particularly positively. However, they clearly connected phonics with learning, and, in the case of two of the three the children with the most positive attitudes, with the possibility of being unsuccessful in their learning. It is interesting to consider that feelings of anxiety seemed to be more pronounced in the children with more positive attitudes.

Choice of reading matter was something that appeared important to all of the participants. It is notable that all of the children with a more positive attitude towards reading seemed to have a more developed understanding of how to select reading matter that would be of interest to them. Adult involvement and independence were topics that arose in each child’s interview. The readers with the least positive attitudes tended to be more resistant to adult involvement, including being read to, whilst the readers with the more positive attitudes tended not to be as resistant to being read to. The readers with a more positive attitude were not, however, without concern about teacher involvement in their reading. The male readers in particular mentioned reading being a forced, or compulsory activity, and all the boys appeared resistant (in differing degrees) to the level of control held by adults in respect of their reading.

Alice’s full PBE can be read here:  ALICE PASCOE HALE PBE


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