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Overcoming the obstacles to teaching children how to read and how to enjoy reading
by Aviva Shapiro - book worm !!

Ever since I can remember myself, I have loved to read. As a child, it was a way to enter another world. I used to come to the dinner table and read under the table as I couldn't put the book down. Later as a teen, I continued wolfing down books even when my mother was angry with me for not doing other things. One of the most difficult problems I had to face as a new immigrant was not having access to English books, as I was living in the North far from any English speaking community. Now as an adult, books are a constant in my life and I can't go to sleep without one next to my bed. Therefore, it's not surprising that I want my students to learn to love books as I do. Thus, the frustration of having to convince them to pick up a book has led me to take a long hard look at why kids don't read today.

There are a myriad of reasons children read less today even in their mother tongue. Of course, one of the reasons is the TV. Although TV has its positive aspects if used correctly, most kids spend way too many hours in front of it unsupervised. Another more entertaining invention is the computer with its many games and Internet with its chat. So If our children aren't in front of the TV, they are on the computer playing games or "chatting" with friends.

Over the years books have fallen to the side. It is much easier to watch something passively than have to work a bit to be entertained. Moreover, it is work to read. Especially when many children don't have the skills to read well enough to do it easily. Anything that is difficult for us will be put off or rejected.

Reading is a skill, which everyone must have to survive in this world, and knowing how to read in English is a skill that is no longer useful only for English speakers. English has become the lingua franca of the world and without knowing how to read in English, survival in the world is going to be very difficult.

However, there are numerous obstacles in teaching our pupils how to read. One obstacle is that too many of our pupils do not know how to read skillfully in their mother tongue. (Whether it be Hebrew or Arabic). This is a very difficult obstacle to overcome. For if the pupils are not able to read well in their mother tongue, they lack many skills that they could transfer to learning to read in English.

Another obstacle is that when learning to read in English, many children become frustrated as they haven't been exposed to enough spoken language (Although some kids have a wonderful grasp of English today just by watching TV - quite often cartoons!!! ). They may learn satisfactorily how to decode the letters and maybe even pronounce the words correctly, but they don't understand what they are reading since their vocabulary is poor, due to not having heard enough of the language. This in turn makes the whole process boring for them and they therefore lose interest (who can blame them !!). This may be because very few teachers read aloud to their students. In my opinion, children who are learning a second language (in this case English) need to hear it a lot before they begin to learn to read. The actual process of decoding is mechanical and many kids learn this skill, but never go on to read well in the sense that they have no idea what they are reading. Moreover, often they get so discouraged that they just give up. Nobody likes doing something which frustrates them.

Now let's discuss more practical things which need to be done in a second language English class in Israel to improve our students reading skills, to help them read better and hopefully even learn to enjoy reading!!

First and foremost, children should be read to in English from a young age. If it is now popular to begin teaching English early (first grade), than have the teachers read aloud every week for at least a period of 20 minutes (or more, depending on the pupils age). Teachers need to read aloud and then check what the kids have understood. Obviously, when teaching the younger learners, books should have pictures. Perhaps in the primary grades, the teacher can read books in English, which the kids know in Hebrew, thus making the material more comprehensible. Reading aloud should be done all the way through high school. I tell my students that by listening to stories they work on many skills such as correct pronunciation, not to mention listening skills (and not to mention the pleasure of hearing a good 'yarn').

I have learned that most kids love being read to. When they have the text in front of them, it helps them focus and improves their understanding. However, this is for the older students rather than the younger ones

Reading aloud to young pupils will gradually teach them not only how to pronounce words, but to learn to focus and to build a vocabulary of words for silent reading. Our long-term goal is to teach them read silently and well!! Reading well means that they can understand what they are reading, enjoy it and then ultimately be able to respond to questions about it.

As English teachers, we face an extremely difficult task. We are expected in a short period of time to bring our students from a level of non-readers to a fairly high level of reading. This is a difficult task in the sense that most kids only begin to learn to read English in either third or fourth grade. Some may have been exposed to hearing English earlier depending on where they live while for others English is truly a foreign language. For this most difficult task of teaching reading, we are given between 3 to 4 hours a week. !!!! To me this is intolerable and I am actually amazed that so many kids learn to read in spite of the little time allotted them in school. Imagine if we had more time what we could accomplish.

In these 3 or 4 hours, beginning in 3rd grade, teachers are supposed to teach kids how to decode in an alphabet which is in no way similar to their native tongue, then build up a vocabulary of words, not to mention understand the grammatical structure of the language.

What disturbs me is that all kids begin studying mathematics in first grade, are given many more hours throughout the years and still very few reach the highest level. Imagine if we were given more hours in elementary and junior high (4th - 8th grade), we would then have time to do more reading aloud, more silent reading, and provide more exposure to the language .

Research from the USA shows us that even when it's their native tongue, teaching reading is far from successful. Why do many children have trouble reading? It may be that reading is not taught very well. Part of the problem is that schools focus on teaching "reading" but not "understanding." What's the difference? It is rather difficult to imagine what it would mean to teach reading without teaching understanding. It doesn't even seem possible. And, if you want to succeed, it isn't.

Still, this hasn't stopped the schools from trying. Reading instruction in school tends to revolve around the mechanics of reading like syllables and prefixes. Learning how to decode individual syllables is different than learning how to understand. Understanding is the reason we read. We read because we want to learn something or be entertained. But, if we don't understand what we read, there is no point in reading.
"Learning the mechanics of reading just isn't much fun. Learning to understand better would be fun, but that is not what we teach."

What this tells us is that we need to focus on meaning early on rather than just decoding. Obviously, the students need to know how to decode and pronounce the words but if we spend too much time on this without incorporating understanding we will not reach many of our pupils.

So what can be done? How can we overcome the obstacles? Well I would love to see more hours given to the teaching of English in Elementary school but this clearly isn't enough. It isn't enough because the teachers who teach them must be qualified teachers who are confident enough regarding their own English to speak and read aloud to the children. As it is today, taking the Homeroom teachers and asking them to expose kids for 30 minutes a week to words and songs is simply not enough (and probably not very effective either)!

In the past there were videos made only in English for the teaching of English. Even though they were often silly, they really did help expose the kids to well spoken English. Today we don't need educational TV videos or DVDs as the market is so full of them. We can just choose from what is available and start exposing kids from the age of 4 and 5 to hearing English. If every kindergarten got a budget for English DVDs and kids started watching and hearing English shows from this age, we'd probably see a different picture when they arrived in school and began to learn to read. I know that this is not the only way, but it could be ONE way to begin.

Other ways of course, as I stated earlier, would be just reading aloud to the kids as much as possible (the more the better). This is something we can do today in all our classes.

As it is today, in high schools we are frustrated by our kids not wanting to read on their own in English, as they simply have not learned that reading can be pleasurable They have never or rarely been exposed to reading for fun, enjoyment and so forth.

Story telling is an ancient art which possibly, if reinstated, might help us overcome some of the obstacles in teaching reading.

In conclusion, what is left for us to do today, until the Ministry makes changes, is to expose our kids to as much English as possible. We must promote the use of DVDs in English, of reading aloud to kids in English and exposure to the language as much as we can in all sectors of the country, as soon as possible.

In addition, we need to train more teachers in the instruction of reading. I haven't touched on this but it's a very real obstacle today. Fewer and fewer teachers really understand the mechanics of reading. A solid program of reading methodology needs to be implemented. This is for both the teaching of English but also for the teaching of reading in the childrens' mother tongue.

We have a lot of work to do but we mustn't let books become obsolete. So let's band together and persevere.

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