When I was a little girl, acceptance and membership of The Literacy Club was defined by the thickness of the book, the speed of the tongue, and the amount one’s brain could hold (at least until test time rolled around.) Comprehension was something that happened when the work with words was done.

BUT – Knowledge is both a cause and a consequence of comprehension.

Traditionally, membership of the ‘literacy club’ was seen as dependent on our ability to move through a set of hierarchical skills that can be conquered.

• 1st., learn the sounds,

• then the letters,

• next move onto words and phrases,

• and finally, once that’s all straight, THINK!

And of course, in this model learners with dyslexia are excluded.

If we base teaching on a conceptualization of reading as a single line of development from simple to more complex tasks, it will perpetuate the myth that reading is over and done with by age 7 or 8; unless you’re stupid.

Reading is a life long endeavour, that develops in competence and confidence the more it is practised across increasingly more difficult and diverse text. In an era of new literacies we are in a simultaneous state of learning to read and reading to learn.

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We need to ask who’s in the various literacy clubs? All members, regardless of age or attainment, are expected to be: active, strategic, flexible, mindful, reflective, purposeful, courageous, engaged, responsible and responsive. Aren’t we all emergent readers when we encounter new texts and media that push the boundaries of genre, form, format, and mode: on and offline? (with thanks to Angela Maiers)

Nevertheless, acquiring phonic skills is essential for fluent reading. Just because I bang on about the centrality of making meaning for fluent, independent reading does not mean that I don’t believe phonics to be vitally important. Essential but not sufficient.

The debate about the various models of teaching reading centres upon the readiness or otherwise of learners to become thoughtful readers. Do the challenges of difficult tasks and problems lead to improved comprehension, or does understanding only emerge when a child is so familiar with the individual components of words that processing skills are automated and leave spare capacity for conscious thought?

The better you are at something, the less of your brain is actively involved … The neurons of the brain re-organise through facilitating new connections into efficient neural networks. .. If you want a child to be a good reader, a good speller and a creative writer, then your first goal is to create efficient and automatic subroutines in the necessary sensorimotor skills that should not require overt attention, such as encoding and decoding. An efficient reader looks at text and does not see letters, nor does he see words; he experiences meaning directly … you can’t get to meaning unless everything else is efficient and automatic. (McGuinness 1998)

Reading is an interactive and reciprocal process requiring sophisticated integration of many skills and factors. The ability to handle the complex logic of the alphabetic code is crucial but we must not ignore higher order language skills such as semantic understanding, rich vocabulary, inference, prediction, concept and schema building and application of prior on and experience.

The data driven model of reading instruction (Bottom Up) does not need to be characterised as a stark contrast to the concept driven model, (Top Down). Both are vital.

The emphasis on symbolic learning when sounds are isolated and then blended together can cause the first casualties to falter. Poor phonological awareness – discriminating between rhymes and syllables – is a major factor in reading failure. Young learners, and many of those with dyslexia, experience a flow of speech – shifting sets of overlapping sounds in chunks, not like individual beads strung on a necklace.

This difficulty distinguishing between sounds, words and whole sentences can lead to classic mis-understandings such as the drawing of green slime and a bit of string to illustrate a section of the Lord’s Prayer: The explanation? ‘Lead us not into temptation’. (You may need to read this aloud).

Sometimes the assumption is made that word meaning follows.

Sometimes this assumption is erroneous.

So when working with learners with dyslexia – at least in the primary years – we must assist them to read and write by exposing them to multi-sensory, cumulative programmes of phonological awareness and phonics while simultaneously enabling understanding by teaching them to circumvent the barriers of print. Over time the balance of these 2 approaches will change.

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