Some time ago, Gemma-Rose asked, “Can I read to you, Mum?” She settled herself next to me on the sofa, excited because she was in the reader’s chair. She smiled at me and then started the first chapter of the book she’d chosen.
“Hey! Slow down,” I said, almost immediately. “I can’t hear all the words. When you’re reading out loud you have an audience. They need to be able to understand every single word.”
Gemma-Rose stiffened. She flashed her eyes at me and then read the next sentence in a gruff voice very, very slowly.
“Well, if you’re going to read like that, perhaps we should leave it for another day.”
I received another scowl before Gemma-Rose picked up the pace and began reading in a more normal voice.
Then she mispronounced a word and I corrected her. My youngest daughter grunted the word correctly at me.
“Don’t you want to know the right way to say the words?” I asked.
“I guess so,” she muttered.
Gemma-Rose continued reading, and anticipating she might not know a word in the next sentence, I jumped in and said it for her.
“I knew how to say that word!”
Reading went smoothly for a time and then as Gemma-Rose became engrossed in the story, she forgot to say all the words. Maybe she read them in her head, but I couldn’t hear them.
“You missed out some words!”
Gemma-Rose huffed and puffed before continuing.
And then she ended a sentence with a wrong word. She did it more than once. “That’s not what the author wrote. You have to read the words as they are written.”
Occasionally she left out a whole line by mistake.
Oh my! Things were not going well. Gemma-Rose was no longer bouncing about with excitement. She was stiff and very, very grumpy. And I wasn’t very happy either. I wondered if perhaps we should just forget reading out loud together. Then I had another idea. I decided to do a reading aloud experiment.
What would happen if I didn’t correct Gemma-Rose anymore, just let her enjoy the reading experience? Would her reading aloud skills improve without any interference from me? Would she gradually come to moderate her pace and say the correct words on her own? I thought it was worthwhile trying this experiment. What was the alternative? Gemma-Rose would start to hate her reading out loud times with me and not want to do it. No, we didn’t have much to lose.
So for 18 months Gemma-Rose and I settled ourselves on the sofa together each morning with a book. And as she was reading, I tried to ignore all the mistakes she was making. Instead, I just observed. I thought about the mechanics of reading. One day I began to wonder if her ‘mistakes’ were all that significant after all.
Gemma-Rose read too fast and sometimes left out words. Was this because she was engrossed in the story? Her mind was probably racing along at a furious pace. Sometimes she left out a whole line of words and didn’t even realise. Was she scanning a few lines at a time? Probably, she’d read the missing words in her head so she didn’t even notice she hadn’t said them out loud.
Gemma-Rose ended a sentence with a wrong word. Could her mind have been jumping ahead, trying to make sense of the sentence? I think she was anticipating a likely word. Maybe she was right most of the time. But those times she was wrong, her sentences still made sense. The author could have chosen the word she supplied.
And when Gemma-Rose did make some kind of mistake which didn’t make sense at all, she always backtracked without any prompting from me. “That’s better! It makes sense now,” she’d smile, pleased she’d corrected her error.
I could have placed my finger under every single word and then Gemma-Rose would have read them all perfectly, I’m sure. I could have smiled and felt proud of her reading ability. But I don’t think perfect word-for-word reading actually says much about a child’s reading skills.
My husband Andy is a primary school teacher. Every now and then, he has to give his students a standardised reading test. The student reads, and Andy notes all the words that are mispronounced, or left out, or are unable to be read, or are substituted with different words. He notes the rate of reading. To get a perfect score, the student has to read the story as the author wrote it, word-for-word in a certain amount of time.
I don’t think this kind of reading test tells us if a child is reading for meaning. A good reader will be scanning ahead quickly, making guesses as to what word is going to come up next, thinking about the words as belonging to sentences. I think this standardised test might as well be given as a list of individual words. It says nothing about the real ability of a child to read for comprehension and enjoyment.
“Shall we find out what happens in the next chapter of your book?” I ask Gemma-Rose.
Soon we are settled side-by-side with the book between us.
Half an hour later I say, “Wow! You’re a good reader! Do you remember when you used to leave out words?”
Gemma-Rose grins. “Well, it didn’t matter. You could read them for yourself. You could see the page too.”
“But now I can listen with my eyes shut.”
Yes, Gemma-Rose, who was always a good reader, can now read out loud very capably. And all I did to help her was to sit back and not interfere.
“Is it your turn to read to me now?” asks Gemma-Rose.
Oh yes, I did do one other thing. I kept reading to her.