IMPROVING LITERACY IN NEWFOUNDLAND

Guest Post by Catherine Penney

Improving Literacy in
Newfoundland and Labrador

The
Greene (PERT) Report includes a statement that “K-6 classroom teachers no longer
graduate from Memorial with adequate skills to reach these subjects”, the
subjects being reading and mathematics. According to the Pan-Canadian
Assessment Program 
in the years 2007, 2010, and
2013, reading achievement in Newfoundland was significantly below the Canadian
average. According to the more recent Southam survey, Newfoundland has the
highest rate of illiteracy of any province in Canada. In Newfoundland and
Labrador, 44% of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador cannot read.
 

If
Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are to have good jobs, they must be able to
use the complex technology now available and also future technology. To keep
up, workers must be highly literate.

Despite
the comment in the Greene Report, we do have good schools and good teachers in
Newfoundland. So why are so many people unable to learn to read? For over 20 years I studied the research literature on reading and dyslexia, and also worked with children and adults with reading difficulty. The reading problem is complicated, and I hope to clarify why learning to read is difficult. Three issues are discussed here, and ways to improve reading and writing skills will be suggested.

Photo Credit: CBC

It Starts with Spelling
and Reading

Every
week, young children are assigned a set of spelling words to learn, and they
also have to do some reading. However, the words children are learning to read
and the words they are learning to spell are the same. To learn to read and
write,
 children have to learn the
“code”, the information about how letters represent pronunciation.
  Many children fail to learn the “code” and
this is why they do not become readers.
 

The
difference between reading and spelling is the way information is retrieved
from the knowledge in the “code”. In reading, the reader sees letters and has
to retrieve the pronunciation represented by the letters. However, with
spelling and writing the direction is reversed and children hear the word and
have to retrieve the spelling. It makes sense that learning the “code” should
include both reading and writing by having children hear, say, spell, and write
the words. Spelling words aloud focuses attention on the sounds in letter names
and thereby offer hints for decoding letters in words.
    

Some Canadian researchers have
been examining the relationship between reading and spelling, and they have
found that teaching spelling is a very good way to teach reading. Spelling
forces the child to focus attention on the letters and their order in words but
some children look at print the same way as they look at an object or picture.
The viewer’s eyes focus randomly on whatever catches the viewer’s eye. Everyone’s
path will be different. However, the reader must look at both letters and words
in the correct order. Teaching spelling corrects the haphazard viewing of the
letters, and forces the child to look at the letters in their correct order.
Only then can children start making connections between letters and the
pronunciations of words.  

Many years ago I did a research project
(Penney, C. G., 2002) in which high-school students with reading difficulty
were given tutoring by having the students spell the words they couldn’t read.
In each lesson, the student read a short passage aloud and the tutor recorded
the difficult words. The student then had to spell and say each word the
student couldn’t read quickly. After doing the lessons, there was a noticeable
improvement in the their reading. The reading improvement 
between students who did the
spelling was significantly larger for the students who did the spelling than
the control students. This spell-to-read method works with people of different
ages including people who are dyslexic.
   

Human Variability

Every
person is different with different interests, abilities and experience. Some
children entering kindergarten have been taught letter names and may be able to
read several words while other children don’t know any letter names. The
aptitude for learning to read varies widely. Some children learn to read
quickly with little instruction while others don’t learn to read even when they
are taught by the best teachers using the most effective teaching methods.
  

In
one of my research projects, I tested children in grade eight on their reading
and memory. Some children in the class were reading at the level of average
third-grade students and were not able to read the grade-eight material, while
other children were reading at the level of third-year university students. The
poor readers struggle desperately, while the top students are bored and not
learning anything new. Only the “average” students are getting appropriate
instruction.
 

The
ideal situation would be to have a broad range of reading material that varies
in genre, content and difficulty. Slower readers should not be pushed into
reading material above their ability but should move ahead to harder material
only when they are ready, not when the curriculum prescribes. The better
readers should move ahead to more difficult reading material. 
However, introducing individual
curricula for each child would require hiring more teachers and purchasing
extra reading material for each class. The costs would be too high.
 

Reading, Writing and
Language

The
goal of reading and writing is to communicate. When trying to communicate a
difficult or complex idea, most people will write some notes before trying to
organize their ideas. For an oral presentation even experienced speakers may
use the notes to help them remember everything they want to say. Some speakers
will read the message rather than simply use their notes if the exact wording
is important.
  

Writing
enables people to communicate a more organized and polished message than would
the message if given in a speech. Complex ideas cannot be communicated in a few
simple words or sentences. The structure of long complex documents are usually
outlined before the writer begins to write because because revision and
reorganization are usually required. Preliminary notes help keep the writer on
track and, if necessary, to reorganize.

Communicating
complex ideas effectively requires complex sentences, and to compose good
sentences the writer must know the meanings of words and how words are used.
The writer must understand how to structure sentences that communicate the
exact meaning of the writer’s idea. Sentences should also be organized so that
each sentence develops the point of the paragraph, and paragraphs must be
organized so that each paragraph helps develop the argument or message of the
essay.

Good
readers are often good writers, but just reading a lot does not always teach
all the grammar and syntax needed to be a good writer. Having read
 disorganized and incoherent
essays written by some university students, my view is
   that teaching grammar and composition should
be part of both reading and writing.
   

Reading, vocabulary, spelling,
penmanship (writing by hand), writing prose, grammar, composition, etc., should
not be taught as separate subjects, but should be included in language.
Language should be taught throughout high school. When reading students’
essays, teachers should not only identify errors but should also show students
how to improve their essays. Based on the teacher’s suggestions and
corrections, the students should then rewrite their essay to see the
improvement and learn different ways to phrase sentences. 

When
I first worked as professor at Memorial University, the quality of students’
preparation for university studies was good, but when I retired many years
later, I found that some students, including fourth-year and graduate students,
were very poor writers. Those students were intelligent, motivated and
interested in their studies, but some did not write good prose. Newfoundland
students have the ability to become good writers if they are taught language
and if they practice their writing skills.
 

Failings of Teaching
Methods for Reading

Look-say
Method
: In the look-say method, the child looks at the word and pronounces
the name. The theory is that the child will associate the appearance of word
with the pronunciation of the name, but the theory doesn’t work unless the
child knows letter names. The letter names usually contain one of the sounds
represented by the letter thus giving the child hints about the pronunciation.

Children who can’t recall letter
names instantly don’t extract the sound information from the letters and can’t
learn to read.
 

Using
Illustrations as Hints:
   Another
method of teaching reading is to have children read text that has illustrations
to help them guess the words. However, guessing “steps” by seeing a picture of
a staircase and saying  “stairs” enables
the child to get the meaning of the word, but this will not help learning to
read the word “steps”.  

Phonics: The
problem with phonics lies with the alphabet. With a phonics method (the method
recommended by reading experts), children are taught letter-sound associations
(e.g. A is for “ah” and B is for “buh”). Then the children try to say the sound
for each letter and “blend” the sounds together. However letters represent
different sounds in different words, (e.g.as C in “cat” and “cent” or E in
“edge”, “even”, “ear” and “Eric”.) There are pairs of words with the same
pronunciation but different meanings (e.g. “deer” and “dear”, and “flower” and
“flour”). To add even more difficulty some words have letters that represent no
sounds at all (e.g. “caught”, “phlegm” “though”).
 

Sounding
and Blending Letters
: Sounding and blending doesn’t work because of the
many sounds that letters represent. A bright child trying to decode the word
“ginger” by sounding and blending letters knew that the letters G and
I both represented two sounds (as in “ginger” and “guide”)
and could pronounce the four possible blends for the first “gi” in
“ginger”, but when he tried to blend three letters , his memory was
overwhelmed.

Spelling
Rules
: Marilyn J. Adams summarized the existing research on reading, and
her book “Beginning to Read” still is very useful today. In one chapter, she discussed
the examined rules for pronouncing vowels and found that rules were frequently
violated. The few spelling rules that were highly consistent may be useful, but
teaching a lot of rules is not likely to be useful.

 How to Improve Students’
Reading and Writing Skills
    

 Ensuring
that all children learn to read and write well can be achieved. The critical
step is to ensure that children learn to decode words quickly and easily as
early as possible.
The best way to teach reading is to teach reading by
having children learn to spell and write words.
After learning to print
letters and know letter names, children can start reading very short stories or
poems containing easy words and simple phrases or sentences. Before trying to
read a new passage, children must practice spelling aloud each new word and
writing it. Letters must be formed properly and neatly. Punctuation must also
be correct.

The
method for teaching reading that was used in the study with the grade
high-school students is simple and mechanical and it could be delivered through
technology. The teaching method works with children, adults, and people with
dyslexia can also learn from the “spell-to-read” method. Teaching children to
learn letter names, to print and write letters, and to learn how letters
represent pronunciation could be taught using technology to deliver the
“spell-to-read” method. Children who need a lot of practice could repeat
difficult lessons and read more material at their level. Children should move
to harder material when they have to skill to do so, not when the curriculum
requires.
 

The
solution to improving reading skills is to implement the recommendations
described teaching language as one subject that includes all the skills.
Teaching the spell-to-read method to teach the “code” could could be taught
through technology. The method is simple and could be coded with existing
technology.

Catherine
Penney

Aug 16, 2021 

Penney, C. G. (2002),
Journal of Literacy Research, 34 99-118.

_____________________________________

Editor’s Note: Catherine Penney has a B.A. (Honours) from McGill
University in psychology; M.Sc. and Ph.D. in psychology from the University of
Toronto. A retired Professor, she worked as in the Psychology Department at Memorial University for 43
years. Penney is the author of 
24 publications in academic journals. Catherine lives in St. John’s.

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