Slide 1: This webinar is titled, “What is Reading?” Its purpose is to provide a definition of reading and a brief overview of skills and experiences needed for reading. It also talks about why reading is more of a challenge to some students than to others.
Slide 2: My name is Aimee Howley. I am retired from Ohio University, where I was a faculty member in the Educational Studies department.
Slide 3: On this slide is a graphic representation of the most important idea in this unit, which is that the act of reading is a creative process in which the reader constructs meaning by interacting with a text. First, the reader interacts with a text through his or her response to the book or page, which may appear familiar and accessible or strange and forbidding, depending on the reader’s past experiences. Second, the reader interacts with the text by deciphering words. Third, he or she interacts with the text by forming scenes and ideas in his or her mind in response to the combinations of words in one or more sentences. Finally, he or she interacts through the construction of a story made up of a connected set of images, scenes, and ideas.
Slide 4: To read something is to make sense of it. We “read” someone’s face to see what they’re feeling. We “read” the sky for signs of a storm. Almost always when we use the word “read” we are talking about making sense of something we see. Reading is looking for patterns that we recognize from past experience as having certain meanings. One of the first things a baby learns how to read is the expression on its mother’s face—a smile means she’s pleased, and a frown may mean trouble. Recognizing visual patterns is essential to reading, whether the visual pattern is a face, the sky, a picture, or a word. In the modern world, one of the most important ways of making sense of things is by reading words. This unit focuses on reading words.
Slide 5: If you looked at storybooks or comic books before you learned how to read words, you may remember that the written words accompanying the pictures were just “marks” to which you paid little attention. You could get the gist of the story from the pictures. Indeed, some written languages derive from simplified pictures. But written English, like many languages, is based on the use of symbols to represent sounds.
Slide 6: In a way, reading words is an amazingly specialized skill. Attention to just the right details is essential—going in the right direction across the page, noticing that the space between words is larger than the space between letters, seeing the difference between letters that are mirror images of each other, like “b” and “d” and like “p” and “q”—and, especially, learning the sounds associated with each letter and letter combination. Because our written language is based on the sounds of our spoken language, reading isn’t just a visual task. It draws on our listening skills as well, and our listening skills depend on our capacity to hear. Fortunately, reading can become primarily a visual skill for individuals with severe hearing loss. These individuals often learn sign language, and they can learn to read by pairing written combinations of letters with signs.
Slide 7: Early instruction for reading begins by having children learn the names of the 26 letters of the alphabet. Although knowing the names of the letters may not be essential for learning how to read, it is a useful part of the process. In reading words, children typically learn to recognize and name each letter, though they often learn the patterns of words by sight, not by recognizing the individual letters in the word. The word “run,” for example, looks different to most people than the word “tiger” does, whether the reader knows the names of the letters or not.
Slide 8: To attend to such details as recognizing particular letters and matching them with certain sounds may be a real challenge for children who don’t anticipate the pleasure that reading can bring. Reading also presents a greater challenge to children who have visual impairments that affect their ability to see print details. However, today, as with students with hearing impairments, there are many alternative materials and methods that enable students with vision impairments to read. Large-print books, audio books, Braille books, and specialized computer software can substitute for conventional classroom reading materials. For all students, academic success depends largely on how well they learn how to read. Paraprofessional educators play an important role in the reading success of many students, a role that is doubly important in that your work is often with those students who experience challenges with the process of learning to read.
Slide 9: Reading is a complex task. In reading signs or people’s faces, the situation—or context—helps provide clues. In conversation, there are many clues that help a listener understand what is being said. The listener may actually see what the speaker is talking about, for example; or the speaker’s tone of voice may let the listener know that he’s kidding. In reading, there are few situational clues other than the words themselves. The images and ideas in the reader’s mind form the context for making sense of the words. At this point, students’ past experiences may make a big difference in the ease with which they read a passage. In one sense, reading is a deciphering process, figuring out what the words are. We call this part of the reading process, decoding.
Slide 10: Once a word is decoded, it will mean something slightly different to every reader. For example, when one student reads the word “ghost,” he or she may imagine a misty figure of a woman in old-fashioned clothes; another student might imagine Casper, the cartoon ghost shaped like a big, white, upside-down raindrop. Each reader will imagine something slightly different because each reader has had different experiences with “ghosts” on television, in the movies, and in pictures in books. The same is true for words describing actions, like “dribbling a basketball.” Someone who has never seen a basketball game in real life or on television might have no idea what’s meant by “dribbling,” but someone who has played basketball may imagine not only how the action looks, but how it feels. The experiences of this second reader make the story more meaningful and perhaps more enjoyable.
Slide 11: To the extent that the story provides details, different readers will share similar ideas about the story, but no story can be so detailed as to control exactly what each reader imagines. That is one of the best things about reading. Every story is, in a way, made up by two people—the writer of the story and the reader of the story. Not only that, because we connect the words in the story with our own experiences, reading makes sense of the words and also helps us make sense of our world by casting something we know into a new perspective. Among the many things reading does is help us learn about ways of life that are different from our own. It inspires us with examples of love, courage, sympathy, and creativity; teaches us important lessons about how to do things, such as how to stay healthy; and entertains us with tales of exciting adventures.
Slide 12: Often, whether students learn how to make sense of those lines of print easily, or find reading a struggle depends on their experiences in school, after school, and even before they started school. A few students come to Kindergarten or first grade already knowing how to read because their parents have made reading fun for them, and they are eager to learn how to read on their own. But when they enter school, most students can read only a few letters and words, perhaps just their first name. Another few may not yet have the pre-reading skills and experiences that prepare them for reading instruction in Kindergarten or even first grade. Without effective instruction in these early grades, these students can fall behind and never catch up academically. The paraprofessional’s role is to work with the instructional team to adapt methods and materials that build on the skills and experiences of such students. The team will be particularly attuned to providing such students with lessons that offer opportunities for creating meaning that is consistent with both the text the students are looking at and the students’ prior experiences. Because, as a paraprofessional educator, you often work in one-on-one settings with students and in small groups, you have a unique opportunity to help students make connections between their own experiences and the text.
Slide 13: Instructional teams can help students make important connections between their prior experiences and the texts they are looking at by combining whole-language approaches with phonetic, or phonemic, approaches to teaching reading.
Slide 14: Using a whole-language approach, you might ask a first-grader to dictate a short description of what he or she did on a recent “snow day,” when school was not in session. Then you could read the story aloud to the student to be sure it says what he or she wants, and then the student herself could read the story to you while you offer help as needed. Even though the dictated story might include words that are not typically first-grade-level words, like “snowman,” “hot chocolate,” and “gloves,” the student may recognize and remember these words because they are important to her memory of a pleasant day. The whole-language approach emphasizes the connection between real life experience, spoken language, and written language.
Slide 15: In the example I just described, the student tells the story about herself orally, sees it written, hears it read aloud, and reads it aloud herself. She has many opportunities to experience the language. This is just one of many different whole-language methods, however. In collaboration with the instructional team, you will choose an instructional method that fits well with the student’s interests and needs.
Slide 16: The needs and interests of the first-grader we’ve been talking about might also suggest the helpfulness of phonetics. The phonetic approach asks students to break down words into the sounds that their letters and letter combinations represent. Phonetics stresses sounds at the level of syllables, noting, for example, that “chimpanzee” has three syllables. Syllables can be made up of one or more sounds. The word, “chimpanzee,” for example, has 8 sounds, called phonemes.
Slide 17: There are many different ways to use phonetic approaches, but whatever method the instructional team selects, it’s important for the teacher or paraprofessional to help students remain focused on the meanings of words and groups of words. Reading is about meaning. Decoding words allows students to know what those words are so they can understand their meaning.
Slide 18: It is also important to remember that what is meaningful to students depends on their experiences. When a student lacks the direct experiences that will enable him or her to understand a text in a meaningful way, the educator can make the connection clear by providing a direct or indirect experience to fill the gap. The teacher or paraprofessional can discuss the unfamiliar concept with the student and provide pictures, movies, or other examples so that the student begins to understand what the concept means. Only when a student understands the meaning of a concept will he or she be able to make sense of the written word used to represent that concept.