Teaching Reading Right

learner-readingImagine not being able to read. Your academic career would not go further than high school, seriously hampering your chances of ever working your way up in the world. You could never apply for a job without assistance, being incapable of filling out an application form. You couldn’t correspond with friends, read for pleasure or treat your children to bedtime stories. You would be unable to read road signs, the instructions on a medicine bottle, or the menu in a restaurant. In essence, you would be severely challenged in a reading world.

Unfortunately, reading problems are a reality. Many children battle to learn to read, and many never succeed.

A global problem 

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as The Nation’s Report Card, is a continuing, representative assessment of what American students know and can do in various subjects. In November 2011, the NAEP released the 2011 reading scores for fourth- and eighth-graders. The results: roughly two thirds of these students were not reading at grade level. Scoring at the basic and below basic levels, these students couldn’t interpret the meaning of a word as it is used in context, locate relevant information, make simple inferences, or use their understanding of the text to identify details that support a particular interpretation or conclusion.

The World Literacy Foundation reported that one in five members of the UK population are so poor at reading and writing that they struggle to read a medicine label or use a checkbook. According to research, this rate of illiteracy is costing the UK economy £81billion a year in lost earnings and increased welfare spending.

The 2006 international Adult Literacy and Life Skills survey found that approximately 40% of employed and 60% of unemployed Australians have poor or very poor literacy and numeracy skills.

South Africans especially affected

The PIRLS 2006 study compared the reading abilities of children in 40 countries. South Africa came last, after Morocco. On a scale of 0 to 1000, approximately 80% of learners in Grade 4 and 5 failed to reach the Low International Benchmark of 400, meaning that they had not mastered basic reading skills. This was in contrast to only 6% of children internationally who did not reach the Low International Benchmark. Only 2% of South African learners in Grade 5 reached the Advanced International Benchmark of 625, compared to 7% internationally.

pirls 2006
The PIRLS 2006 study compared the reading abilities of children in 40 countries. South Africa came last, after Morocco.


Because South Africa performed so poorly in PIRLS 2006, we were given the option of writing a less difficult pre-PIRLS test in 2011. Therefore, in 2011 South Africa participated in both PIRLS and pre-PIRLS. Grade 4 wrote the pre-PIRLS assessment and Grade 5 wrote PIRLS. The results were equally poor.

Reading failure has devastating effects

Persistent reading failure leads to anguish, embarrassment and frustration. “Already by the end of first grade, children having difficulty learning to read begin to feel less positive about themselves than when they started school,” says Dr. G. Reid Lyon, a former researcher of the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the USA. “As we follow children through elementary and middle school years, self-esteem and the motivation to learn to read decline even further.”

“School dropouts, teenage pregnancy, poor academic achievement, crime — all these are downstream consequences of not learning to read,” continues Lyon. More than three decades of study by the NIH found that of the 10% to 15% of children who will eventually drop out of school, more than 75% will report reading difficulties.

Research has proven that there is a close relationship between illiteracy and crime. According to the US Department of Education, 85% of all juvenile offenders have reading problems. In the adult population, 60% of prison inmates are functionally illiterate, meaning that they are unable to read or write well enough to deal with the everyday requirements of life.

Strong reading skills linked to many benefits

On the other hand, strong reading skills have been linked to many personal, social and economic benefits. According to research published in Psychological Science, reading ability at the early age of seven may be linked to socio-economic status several decades later.

Following more than 17,000 people in England, Scotland, and Wales over a span of about 50 years (from birth in 1958 to present day), Stuart Ritchie and Timothy Bates of the University of Edinburgh found that participants’ reading and maths ability at age seven were linked to their social class a full 35 years later. Participants who had higher reading and maths skills as children later had higher incomes, better housing, and better jobs in adulthood. The data suggest, for example, that achieving one reading level higher at age seven was associated with a £5,000 (roughly $7,750) increase in income at age 42.

“These findings imply that basic childhood skills, independent of how smart you are, how long you stay in school, or the social class you started off in, will be important throughout your life,” state Ritchie and Bates.

Overcoming reading problems

Edublox offers programmes that can help stem the tide of illiteracy by teaching young children to read, as well as help children and high school learners alike to overcome moderate to severe reading difficulties. The effectiveness of our programmes is due to the fact that they are based on universal learning principles, rather than individualised learning styles or personal learning preferences.

i) Learning is a stratified process

The first universal learning principle is that human learning does not take place at a single level, but is a stratified process. This is generally accepted worldwide as a didactic principle. Throughout the world in variant educational systems, it is commonly accepted that a child must start at the lower levels of education and then gradually progress to the higher levels.

If human learning had not been a stratified process, but rather taken place at a single level, this would have been unnecessary. It would not have been important to start a child in Grade 1. In fact, it would have been possible for the child to enter school at any level and to complete his grades in any order.

A practical example is the fact that one must learn to count before it becomes possible to learn to do arithmetic. Suppose one tries to teach a child to add and subtract, when that child has not yet learned to count. This would be quite impossible, and no amount of effort would successfully teach the child addition and subtraction. This illustrates that counting is a skill that must be mastered before it becomes possible to learn to do calculations.

In the same way, there are certain skills and pieces of knowledge a child must have acquired before it becomes possible for him to benefit from a course in reading.

The main objective of our programmes is to practise and automatise the skills that underlie reading. Foundational reading skills include mental skills such as divided attention; interpretation of position in space; form perception; processing speed; and visual, auditory, sequential and working memory.

ii) Automaticity is the result of repetition and practice

Acquisition of a new skill is generally associated with a decrease in the need for effortful control over performance, leading to the development of automaticity. Automaticity by definition has been achieved when performance of a primary task is minimally affected by other ongoing tasks. People often refer to automaticity by saying they can do the task “on auto-pilot” or “in my sleep.”

Examples of automaticity are common activities such as walking, riding a bicycle, driving a car and speaking. Any person, who speaks a language that he knows well, does not concentrate on vocabulary or sentence construction or grammar. His mind is focused on what he wants to say. As explained in the Journal of Learning Disabilities, “if the skill on the primary task is automatised, it will not be disrupted by concurrent processing of the secondary task because automatic processing does not take up attentional resources.”

If, on the contrary, the skill is not automatised, it will be disrupted by concurrent processing of a second skill because two skills are then competing for limited attentional resources. Therefore, when a person attempts to speak a language in which he has not yet become fluent or ‘automatic,’ he will necessarily have to divide his attention between the content of his message and the language itself. He will therefore speak haltingly and with great difficulty.

This also applies to the act of reading. The person, in whom the foundational skills of reading have not yet become automatic, will read haltingly and with great difficulty. The poor reader is forced to apply all his concentration to word recognition, and therefore has “no concentration left” for content. As a result, he will not be able to read with comprehension.

Automaticity is usually the result of learning, repetition, and practice. The main process by which we develop automaticity is called overlearning (also called overtraining). Overlearning is a pedagogical concept according to which newly acquired skills should be practised well beyond the point of initial mastery, leading to automaticity.

Overlearning is a tool frequently used by people who address audiences or perform in public. A violinist, for example, doesn’t stop learning a piece once he has initially mastered it. Instead, he continues to practise that piece so that it becomes automatic and there is little possibility of forgetting it when performing in front of a large crowd. Similarly, actors, dancers, and other musicians may calm the jitters by overlearning their parts, and may actually improve their performance by continuing to practise beyond initial memorisation of lines, steps, or musical notes.

iii) Opportunities for application are key to success

The third important learning principle is that there must be opportunities for application. Even while learning to master the skills that form the basis of reading, a child can and should already be given opportunities to apply these skills in the act of reading.

An important point is that these three fundamental learning principles should be viewed as a whole, and not in isolation. Any botanist will tell you the same thing: it is the interaction of the amount of water, sunlight and fertiliser that will cause a tree to bear large, juicy fruit. If you only water the tree six weeks after you have hoed the fertiliser into the ground, you are bound to return to a withered tree.

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