Much has been written on reading theory and how to teach emergent readers to read. In contrast, research in Australia in recent years has highlighted the lack of development of reading abilities in the middle years of schooling and of a lack of direction and support for teachers. As an initial foray into discovering what reading instruction looks like in the upper primary school, I spoke with an experienced primary school teacher who was at that time (2001) teaching a Year 7 class. Through a series of three taped interviews, teacher Q discussed her views, experiences and classroom practices in the area of reading. While a variety of approaches were discerned, personal philosophy appeared to be a strong determinant of teacher decisions and practice.
A significant finding of the National School English Literacy Survey (NSELS) in 1997 was a distinct lack of development in literacy skills of students in the middle years of schooling. Note that 'Middle years' as it is referred to here relates to the upper primary year levels and the lower grades in secondary school; while 'middle primary' refers to Years three, four and five in the primary school. For many students, literacy proficiency stagnates after the early years of schooling. Given the shift in emphasis from learning to read in the lower primary school, to reading to learn in the upper primary years, coupled with the need for an increased reading load across content areas in secondary school, this lack of development in the middle years of schooling is of concern.
In a report by Luke and Freebody (2000) on literacy instruction in Queensland state schools, the teaching of reading was highlighted as a priority area. Luke and Freebody found 'a general loss of focus on in-service work and further professional upgrading in the teaching of reading', 'a marked lack of expertise in and focus on the teaching of reading in the middle years and virtually no evidence of such expertise and focus in the secondary years' and 'an overall lack of systemic direction and guidance from Education Queensland and universities and professional organisations on the teaching of reading' (p. 75). They also pointed to pre-service training in reading as 'highly variable' resulting in a multiplicity of practices, approaches and metalanguages.
These findings prompt questions about what happens in reading classrooms in the middle years of schooling and what teachers consult in deciding how to teach reading. Knowledge of practices and influences on reading instruction would allow for critical reflection on practice and philosophy, a necessary aspect of any professional activity. It is of timely importance as Queensland schools prepare for the implementation of Whole School Literacy Plans and the adoption of the 'Four Resources Model' proposed by Luke and Freebody (1999).
In recent years much has been written about the so called 'reading wars', of Whole Language versus phonics, explicit versus implicit teaching,. Often these discussions have focussed on the beginning reader. Research involving readers in the later years of primary school have tended to spotlight problems that specific readers may be experiencing. That is, much research in this area focusses on the development of a particular area or skill of reading such as comprehension (Katims & Harris 1997) or vocabulary (Harmon 1998). Very little exists to suggest how a teacher approaches the teaching of reading in the context of an upper primary classroom. While it is very important to address reading problems in this part of the school, it is just as important to formulate a plan for the continued development of the majority of class members who do cope with reading. Identification of what is occurring in upper primary classrooms, drawing on experienced teachers' knowledge, would be useful in determining a framework of emphases and pedagogies relevant to this context. One way of tracking the effects on a teacher's approach to the teaching of reading is to identify underlying beliefs and theories.
In considering reading as skills, the physical reading process is emphasised. A hierarchy of skills is identified and practised until an individual is competent in the reading act. This approach was evident prior to the 1970s and utilised much 'skill and drill'. Basal reading schemes were an element of this approach, with meaning and understanding of written text assumed to develop naturally with competence. The psycholinguistic stance entailed a focus on the learner and cognition, shifting from skills to meaning. An individual reader's prior knowledge was recognised as influential in interpreting the meaning of texts. Strategic approaches to reading and the Whole Language philosophy came to prominence under the psycholinguistic umbrella. Consequently, basal readers began to make way for literature based reading programs.
More recently, attention has been drawn to the social and cultural context of readers and text, thus highlighting reading as a social practice. Social theory in relation to reading came to the fore in the 1980s. It emphasised the interaction between the author's text and the reader, both of which are culturally and socially positioned. The inclusion of studies in genres and the importance of critical literacy are aspects of social approaches to reading.
Luke and Freebody's (2000) Four Resource Model for reading, where the reader is involved in four practices - as code breaker; meaning maker; text user; and text analyst - is an application of a socio-critical perspective. As a code breaker, the reader uses graphophonic, grammatical and semantic knowledge to work out what the text says. As a meaning maker, the reader assigns meaning to the text, me diated by their social and cultural understandings and experiences. As a text user, the reader considers text from the point of view of consumer (that is, how to use the text). As a text analyst, the reader deconstructs the text to uncover ideologies, viewpoints, gaps, silences and bias. This model is seen as subsuming and expanding upon historical approaches to reading, and in so doing down plays the debates surrounding methodologies.
It is possible to view instruction that includes consideration of the individual, the act and the social dimensions of reading as desirable. Indeed, Rivalland (2001) encourages an eclectic approach as it is unlikely that one 'right methodology' will emerge. While a mixture of methodologies may be adopted, skill and acuity are required in ensuring those applied are complementary. Besides matching methodologies with the needs, abilities and characteristics of specific groups of students, teachers must be aware of which methodologies may and may not work together to provide effective pedagogy.
Qualitative research is seen as particularly appropriate to the educational arena and semi-structured interviews appear as a tool capable of providing focussed information and suggesting future research directions (Hitchcock & Hughes 1995). The interviews undertaken took the guise of semi-structured 'elite' interviews. That is to say, the interviewer used a variety of open and closed questions to explore the topic with an individual (Q) considered to speak with authority on the topic (following Gillham 2001).
The interview structure was based on that promoted by Seidman (1991) including a series of three 90 minute interviews. The first interview focussed on obtaining a professional history of teacher Q while the second interview aimed to uncover details of Q's present reading instructional practices. The third interview required Q to listen to and comment on a summary of the previous two interviews, and to add or clarify any points that she wished to address. The third interview therefore provided a way of validating my interpretations and offered opportunities for Q to clarify and add to the interview summaries. With this structure, it was necessary for transcriptions to be done between interviews. On completion of the interview series, a content analysis was undertaken.
Initially, the content analysis focussed on classifying practices and related beliefs mentioned by Q, as well as any other apparent themes. Identified practices and beliefs were then categorised according to underlying theoretical stances. A further analysis sought to clarify elements of the four practices as promoted by Luke and Freebody (1997, 1999).
I guess in terms of philosophy, my philosophy is that no child should get out of primary school without being able to read ... and at least for me to have helped them to enjoy it and to get pleasure from it; for it to be fun and exciting, as well as useful and pragmatic.Promotion of reading as fun is seen as the primary focus. Q cites several instances of having 'fun' with class reading. One situation involved the completion of a Book-It reading scheme where the whole class had to read a specified number of books at home within a given period of time. This challenge culminated in a class outing to a local restaurant for a meal and the cinema to view a movie, accompanied by Q, dressed in pyjamas and slippers.
Another fun activity came in the guise of 'combat reading':
(W)e came up with this format of combat reading where they had to ... come up with some ideas about what they think was happening in the text, that they had to justify them, and with some of them, their way of justifying was really just to shout louder - to have an opinion, not back it up, and shout - so we called it combat reading. [I would say:] 'So if you're going to beat me, you're really going to have to have a more mature way of arguing, or you are just not going to do very well in battle, guys' ... but it was fun, because they would read and they'd think, 'Now how can I beat the old bat?'The promotion of reading as fun therefore incorporates an aspect of teacher personality. The challenges set for the class by Q involve a reflection of her sense of fun and what she considers will appeal to her students. Dressing for the movies in pyjamas and slippers, or referring to herself as 'the old bat' are signs of Q's personality and sense of fun. Such characteristics are carried over into vocabulary study where Q gives impromptu role-plays to portray word meanings. The fun injected into instructional strategies then serves to create enjoyable experiences around reading and to promote content knowledge.
Teacher Q holds two or three lessons a week devoted to reading. She makes reference to the school reading program and supplements this with the First Steps reading guide for greater detail and direction. Q blends the information in these documents with her own preferences and perceptions of student needs to formulate her reading curriculum plan. She does not use the reading scheme available to the Year 7 classes as the set readers utilise extracts rather than whole novels, which Q considers extremely unsatisfactory.
Q's preference is for complete novels or texts as a focus in reading lessons. As a whole class, a new text is discussed in terms of plot and characters, and then the text is read in mixed ability groups. Subsequent lessons begin with a recapitulation of the story to date and a comparison to earlier predictions, prior to considering further questions about plot, character development and evaluations. Any challenging vocabulary is discussed. Students then continue to read the text i n their groups. At the conclusion of the lesson Q may pose some questions orally or may list some written questions for students to answer.
Q makes use of mixed ability groups as a way of improving the self-concept of poorer readers, and of moving them past the focus on decoding and onto meaning. Mixed ability grouping is seen as a way around the slow pace at which a group of poorer readers will progress through a text. Maintaining a comfortable reading pace through a text helps the poorer reader to focus on the text's meaning. Q says of 'really poor readers':
I'm finding that their ability to read out aloud has improved, and I've also found that their comprehension has improved from being exposed to the better readers; and every year I find that.Q's experiences have shown her that poorer readers in mixed ability groups develop an ability to understand and interact around a text even if their decoding skills are not strong. Groups are therefore constructed through interesting combinations of individuals who will interact productively around a text.
Some work is done on decoding as the need arises, but Q believes that decoding skills may also be 'caught' from others. This social aspect to learning is again apparent in students' experience with vocabulary. It is Q's contention that, left to their own devices, students will gloss over unknown words without investigating their meaning:
If they're reading a book on their own then if they don't know a word, you never see a kid get a dictionary out to check that word. It never happens ... so, the learning of vocab is really a shared thing, and unless a kid will actually say to you, 'what does "conspicuous" mean?', and you can tell them, it's gone. ... It is amazing how often they haven't picked it up from context either. They might have an idea but they haven't got the nuances, which you as an adult who will understand it, can give them, and give them a variety of contexts in which that word is used.This experience with vocabulary is another way of reinforcing the importance of constructing meaning from a text. Q does not speak about the decoding of the word but about its meaning, and alludes to how meanings can vary depending on social and cultural contexts. Word building aspects of vocabulary study are left for the spelling curriculum.
Except for fulfilling her obligation to read as a member of a group in reading lessons, Q does not regularly read to the class. She stresses that given a lack of time, it is better to share a number of short books in reading lessons where greater opportunity is offered for discussion in small groups, than to read to the whole class from one long book with less chance for interaction. Q also points out that reading books in small groups allows for the visual reinforcement of words, not just the aural rendition of words as is offered when reading to the whole class. A lack of time was also cited for not providing timetabled opportunity for silent reading.
The emphasis in reading lessons changes throughout the year in Q's classroom. At the beginning of the year, Q concentrates on getting students to enjoy reading and so uses parent helpers with groups to work on the amount of reading done. Q also uses this time to develop a profile of the class as a whole in respect to reading skill and comprehension ability. Throughout the year, texts are chosen for their ability to develop various comprehension skills, expand vocabulary and general knowledge, and encourage student interaction. By the end of the year, Q uses texts for more focussed critical analysis, and discussion skills developed throughout the year are extended into debating.
Q also addresses particular topics within the texts being studied. A theme may be examined in several books - for example, the issue of stereotyping in fairy tales. Not only is the issue identified, but its relevance to everyday life is discussed. How culture affects literature and vice versa is put under the spotlight. Individuals are asked to draw parallels to their personal experiences, that is, their prior knowledge. Justification for students' opinions is regularly requested. The instigation of 'combat reading' was in response to the perceived need for students to verify their statements.
At the beginning of the year, Q was using reading comprehension cards, which are indicative of a skills approach and in contrast to her preferred style of practice. As students were not handling these successfully, Q ceased using these cards, preferring to develop comprehension through discussion. Anstey and Bull (1996) point out that the practice of asking questions of carefully sequenced passages or texts of increasing difficulty, as found in comprehension cards utilised in skills approaches, may engage students in comprehension activities but does not teach them how to comprehend effectively. Q's experience would support this contention.
The Australian Democratic Reader was enlisted as a text to address a perceived lack of historical knowledge. Another text, The Kimberley Warrior, was chosen because of what it could add to the discussion on racism, an area in which Q perceived a less than open-minded approach by her students. While The Australian Democratic Reader incorporates a variety of genre (for example, poems, reports, expositions), Q tends to concentrate on narratives. While she admits that comprehension of non-fiction texts is important to help them learn better skills for their projects, Q believes that narratives are best for teaching reading:
You get kids who hate to read - hate novels - so they always choose non-fiction. In most year levels, I've found two or three kids whose preference is non-fiction. You struggle to get them to read a novel so their exposure to novels is what you do ... (F)or the reading scheme that I run where you read at home, they'll frequently [read] something like 'Australia's Deadliest Spiders' - whatever topic they're interested in - motor cars [for example] ... But it always staggers me to think, 'How could you not want to read?'The implication here is that those who choose non-fiction do not like reading and that people who like reading will naturally select novels. This is a rather narrow view of reading.
Q uses a home-reading program such as the 'Pizza Hut Book-It' scheme as a motivational tool to have students read at home. Having the students read is seen as an initial step in developing an enjoyment of reading. Within the home-reading program, and for group reading, Q enlists the aid of parents. Interacting around text with parents is seen as important, and can be seen as an element of both psycholinguistic and social approaches to reading.
In summary, then, the texts Q uses are selected with availability, student need and instructional aims in mind. The focus is on narratives although some poetry, expositions and non-fiction texts are used at times. Written text may also be supplemented with visual texts such as film, and oral forms such as debating. A variety of books is incorporated through the home reading scheme (though non-fiction is discouraged).
A skills orientation can be discerned in Q's reference to decoding skills and the use of visual stimulation for word memory. However, Q does not practice such skills within reading lessons. Word building strategies are addressed in the spelling program but Q does not see this as part of reading instruction.
Aspects of comprehension - literal, inferential, critical and creative - are important to Q. She uses comprehension worksheets to evaluate comprehension abilities across the Year 7 classes at her school. Written activities such as these are seen as providing formal feedback on student reading comprehension.
Q's preference, however, is for oral questioning, where the students can talk about what they have read in order to clarify understanding. In the interviews, explicit instruction in reading skills was not fore-grounded. It was mentioned that particular needs were addressed as they arose, but given the negative self-concept of poorer readers at this end of the primary school, Q chose to concentrate on gaining meaning from text and dealing with decoding incidentally or through the spelling program.
In discussion of reading throughout the primary school, Q claimed that the emphasis on skills prevalent in the infant classes decreased as students moved up the school. She used the term 'functional', which is reminiscent of the skills approach focussing on developing skills that would enable an individual to function within society:
I guess if you're looking at lower, middle and upper school.. it's functional; in the middle grades it's still functional, but you're teaching them not just the decoding skills but the whole, whole way language works in paragraphs and the way authors express ideas and stuff like that. So, it's still functional (in the upper classes) - but you want to move on and broaden their literacy base and [broaden] their exposure to a variety of literature.Expressed in these terms, one would expect Q's outlook to be strongly skills based, as the broadening exposure to literature can still be attributed to traditional styles of teaching. However, her emphasis on meaning construction and interaction around text moves her outlook past a skills emphasis.
A psycholinguistic approach to the teaching of reading is apparent through Q's insistence on the use of whole texts, the teaching of skills in context, and the interpretation of text based on prior knowledge. Attention to broadening the students' knowledge about language (for example, through studying similes and metaphors as they occur in some texts) and to enhancing their general and historical knowledge are seen as pertinent to developing understanding and enjoyment in reading a text. It is interesting to note Q's denunciation of the application of Whole Language theory when, in fact, several of her practices can be classified as such. This may result from a particular interpretation of Whole Language teaching, especially its identification with implicit teaching and its frequent juxtaposition with explicit phonics instruction (see, for example, Chall 1992). Q says:
(W)hen the Whole Language approach came in, I was teaching in the lower school. ... When people started to talk about it, it sounded really wonderful. But when you actually thought of the practicalities of what kids needed to do for learning to read, it wasn't sufficient. And the teachers that were doing it well and successfully were also incorporating an awful lot of all of that - phonic work and all the other stuff - and integrating writing in your reading that wasn't actually a part of the Whole Language as it was presented.The inaccurate portrayal of Whole Language may be part of the explanation, but when Q's practices are analysed according to the conditions of literacy learning (basic to the Whole Language movement) as identified by Cambourne (2000), there is much overlap. While Cambourne's conditions are identified with particular reference to 'learner-readers', the sentiments and practices are still valid in the upper primary context. This was apparent in Q's classroom through the use and demonstration of a variety of authentic texts, and expectations of student responsibility for learning.
Added to elements of psycholinguistic approaches to teaching reading in Q's classroom are elements of a social view. In defining 'literacy', Q advanced the importance of prior knowledge in making meaning during reading, but included an ability to interact with the world:
To think about what you're reading and relate that to your own experiences of what you already know, and, taking that further, to be really literate, you would read something and think 'I want to know more about that' [using it] as a springboard for moving, for learning more - a springboard for interacting with the world.Q's sentiments as stated here are reminiscent of Freire's view of literacy as reading the world as well as the word. (Anstey & Bull 1996) What is read is seen to affect, and be affected by, the individual's interaction with their environment. Q's instructional style can be seen not just to focus on what content knowledge is learned from the reading of the text (for example, vocabulary, historical and geographical knowledge) but also a way of interacting with text. Students are expected to voice opinions and justifications about what is read. They must discuss texts with others in their class and with their parents. Students are expected to look beyond the story plot to uncover social and cultural nuances, and to make interpretations about authorial decisions. The author's use of plot, theme and stereotyping are discussed, but so too are questions about how these relate to the students themselves and how instances of these may be replayed in everyday life. Knowledge of language is put into practice by students in other classroom activities - for example, knowledge of expository texts is used in debates, and the use of theme and stereotypes as seen in various texts is to be used by students in their own writing.
In the upper grades, by this grade, they need to be able to decode words like 'reclamation', and you need these kids to reach a stage where they can go to high school and read this, because they are all going to read the same text.Word building skills were addressed explicitly in the spelling program but regular instruction within reading lessons was not undertaken. In an effort to overcome the negative self-concepts of poorer readers, which Q believes were a result of problems in decoding and reading skills, mixed ability groups are used. Q believes that these groups allow a greater focus on meaning and a lesser focus on code breaker elements. Q considers that in this context poor readers' decoding of text will improve because they are able to view how the better readers in the group approach words. The use of small groups also allows each student to view the text as it is being read, therefore reinforcing the visual memory of words. Q views visual input in word recognition as important:
(I)f you're looking at some of those words on the page, I always hope that the next time they come across it they will remember it; whereas if you just hear it, visually it's not familiar.Q restricted her comments about reading instruction in her classroom to specific reading lessons. It is not apparent from her comments whether the visual identification of symbols such as those found in information technology lessons is taught.
I like to do, with Year 7, books where they learn - [especially] historical stuff because their knowledge of history and geography is just appalling ... I like books that take us further in our understanding ...Expository texts are also included, along with their application to debating. Q did make reference to using non-fiction texts for note-taking but prefers the use of narratives in reading lessons.
We watched 'Gallipoli' ... trying to move the kids away from looking at the movie in terms of 'God this is boring! It's going on so there's not a lot of action;' to 'Well why did the director make those choices to do it that way? What messages were they trying to get across?'The types of questions posed for group discussion or written response require statement and justification of opinions. The creation of 'combat reading' was in response to the need for students to justify their comments about text, rather than to demand acceptance through loudness. The identification of stereotypes in texts is also typical of analytic practices. When investigating stereotypes, Q includes analysis of characters, gender and plot within narratives. Students are required to relate how such depictions impact on their own lives. Debating comes under the umbrella of text analyst practices as does identification of author's purpose and decisions, both of which are apparent within Q's reading lessons.
Affective development in reading is foremost in Q's pedagogical decisions. Q's personal passion for reading and her appreciation of reading as the skill to have culminate in a reading program aimed at developing students into appreciative readers. Q's instructional emphasis is on enjoyment of narratives and an ability to analyse texts through interaction with others around text, and by relating texts to everyday experiences. Appreciation and enjoyment of reading is seen to develop through engagement in the reading and meaning making process. Materials, interactions and activities are aimed at building confidence and knowledge in understanding of text, therefore allowing individuals to enjoy reading. Reading is seen by Q to be central to an individual's options in life:
I think children who are allowed to get through primary school without developing (a) an ability to read, and (b) an enjoyment of it are handicapped depending on what they want to do in life. They're handicapped because they are deprived of that pleasure. Now so long as you can teach them to read ... even if you haven't succeeded in getting them to enjoy it; you know that you've equipped them to ... be able to do whatever it is they want to do in life.If one can accept this point of view, how unsettling is it to consider that so little assistance is given to the development of reading in the upper primary school. A strength of this research is how it has suggested further avenues for investigation of this topic. A clearer focus on Q's practice would be gained by observations of Q's classroom practices over a period of time to determine reading instruction that occurs not just in reading lessons but across the curriculum.
This study also provides a basis for comparison with the approaches of other teachers. Replication of this study with other teachers in the upper primary or middle years of schooling would provide greater understanding teachers' professional practice. Q's self identification as a lover of reading, and her consequent aim of making reading 'fun', poses the obvious question of how a teacher for whom reading is not such a passion may approach reading instruction. Assuming that there are teachers who fit this description, how would their aims and practices differ, if at all, from those of teacher Q? Even more fundamentally, is a love of reading 'caught' or 'taught'? Development of the affective domain of reading is an area of exploration that has not enjoyed the widespread attention that beginning reading or explicit versus implicit instruction have received. If a love or appreciation of reading is a necessary tool for life-long learning, how is it developed? Research into pedagogy and the affective domain of reading is thus a strong recommendation from this study.
The teaching of reading is of primary concern in educational settings. Given the emphasis on the application of reading skills for learning in the secondary school, and the lack of instruction in reading in that context, it is particularly important to understand the demands on reading instruct ion in the upper primary school and how these demands may be met. Identification of teaching practices based on experience and what 'works' is seen as an initial step in critically reflecting on instructional practice in an effort to develop improved teaching practice.
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|Author details: Ms Teresa Woolacott, Faculty of Education, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba Qld 4350. Email: email@example.com
Please cite as: Woolacott, T. (2002). A profile of the teaching of reading in an upper primary school classroom. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 18(1), 82-103. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer18/woolacott.html