Cameroon 2009

Cameroon 2009

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Literacy starts with listening and speaking

A couple of months ago I read an article by Richard Allington in the ASCD's Educational Leadership: October 2014 entitled "Reading Moves - What Not to Do". 
In one part of the article, he references "the need for literate conversations".

Thinking about those "literate conversations":  I wonder how much of the difficulty for struggling readers originates in a paucity of oral language prior to ever learning to read, and then throughout the years that they're developing as readers.  How much more difficult it must be to make meaning of text (really just oral language committed to a secondary, visual form) when a child hasn't had the opportunity to "decode" anything beyond a trivial level of meaning in the conversations they've heard from birth.  This lack of oral fluency, and listening "fluency" (if there is such a thing) must translate into difficulty with the written word, I'd think.
In the latter part of the article, the author advocates for "turn, pair and share".  Okay, fine, if the children are capable of doing so fluently, intelligently.  What if they simply haven't the facility to do this well?  Repetition without a means of development can't reasonably lead to significant growth.  This is where modelling - students having an opportunity to repeatedly hear two (or more) literate people have a discussion - might be significant, and damnably difficult to create in a one teacher environment.

There are 6 identified language arts (here in MB, anyway).  Reading is the one we virtually obsess over; writing the poor sister who gets attention when we notice that she's being neglected.  The other four starve, really.  There may be speaking and listening in school, but I have no sense that we work very hard at actually improving these skills in classrooms.  Viewing and representing, sure, when we think of them; and at that, my uninformed observation is that we feel almost "clever" by including them - "Look how progressive we are by having students draw, create posters, create other visuals, record their voices, etc."  Is reading really the most central of the visual arts?  I don't think so; that centre, in my view, is the speaking and listening that we evolved to do.  Perhaps that's what we should be focusing on first with our struggling, nascent readers in K, 1, 2.  Help them learn to speak and listen with verbally rich language first, then indulge them in reading.  And maybe that isn't even an "either-or" proposition, but rather a choice of emphasis about which needs must come first.


  1. Interesting points, Neil. When do we really teach students the "art" of listening? We tell students to sit and listen but really what does that mean? Just because they are sitting doesn't mean they are actively listening. You have made some points to ponder.

    1. Thanks Alann. I really do question our almost "fetishistic" compulsion to force students into reading at the ages of 5 and 6. There's some pretty compelling research that says no more than half of students at these ages are ready to start reading. Surely it's harmful to take away opportunities to play (and to learn "naturally") as we force children into chairs, onto mats, etc. and make it clear that to be a non-reader is to be defective in some manner.

  2. I've read in parts of Europe formal school doesn't begin until age 7. As a Kindergarten teacher, does the research offer ways to identify those who might be ready to start reading, and those who are not? Then there are the expectations of the parents - reading as early as possible, as much as possible. Delaying the start of formal reading instruction is contrary to everything they're supposed to believe about school.