How should reading be taught in schools?

The ability to read is empowering and a fundamental right. Sadly, many children leave school either unable to read or disinterested in reading. There are many reasons for this. Unfortunately, for many children, it is a learned disability. There are almost as many opinions about how how reading should be taught as there are people willing to give them. I don’t always agree with those opinions, but I do with this one by Misty Adoniou, which first appeared in The Conversation on June 21, 2016.
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How should reading be taught in schools?

Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

When my son was nine years old, he put aside the large Harry Potter novel he had been slowly, but enthusiastically, reading each evening and instead began ploughing through lots of fairly uninspiring books that he brought home from school each day.

It turned out the Year 4 teachers had devised a competition at his school – whichever class read the most books would be rewarded with an end of term pizza party.

The aim, I presume, was to motivate the children to read. It is ironic then that the effect was that my son stopped reading for pleasure and instead began reading for the numbers.

Reading is now increasingly being reduced to a numbers game in schools.

What level is your child at?

At pick up time, parents quiz each other about what reading level their child is on. Inside the school staff room, teachers are directed to have children on level 15, 20 or 30 by the end of the school year.

Six year olds are deciding whether they are good readers or not based on how many books they have ticked off on their take home reader sheet.

These levels are based on algorithms that calculate the ratio of syllables to sentences, or measure word frequency and sentence length.

The rationale is that these formulae can be applied to rank books on a scale of readability and thus guide teachers to match books with children’s reading ability.

There are two key problems with this numbers approach to reading. First, the algorithms are faulty. Second, publishers misuse them.

What makes a book hard or easy to read?

The missing variables in readability algorithms are the authors’ intentions, the readers’ motivations and the teachers’ instruction.

These are key omissions, and they seriously reduce the usability of the algorithms and the credibility of the reading levels they produce.

Fictional stories often use familiar and high frequency vocabulary, and many authors use relatively simple sentence structures.

However the use of literary tools like allegory and metaphor, along with challenging text themes, increases the difficulty of works of fiction in ways that are not captured in readability algorithms.

For example, readability formulae give Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” a reading level suitable for primary school students. They may be able to decode the words on the page but comprehension of the book is less likely.

The same formulae may rank a non-fiction book on dinosaurs, for example, as only suitable for high school students because of its uncommon vocabulary, lengthy sentences and multi-syllabic words.

Yet a child’s interest and familiarity with the topic, or a teacher or parent’s support and instruction, can make that non-fiction book very readable for younger children.

Reading schemes

As readability formulae are not always a good fit for books, the solution has been, instead, to write books which fit the formulae. And publishers have been very keen to supply those books.

These are the books that our children take home each evening. They are written according to the numbers – numbers of high frequency words, numbers of syllables, numbers of words in a sentence.

What is missing in those books is author intention and craft, reader engagement and interest, and teacher support and instruction.

Essentially, then, what is missing in these books is the very essence of reading.

What books should children read?

We have been using the reading scheme system for decades and we still have children struggling to read.

When we use these quasi books to teach reading, we are not adequately preparing them for real reading.

These books, written to fit algorithms, don’t build broad vocabularies in our children. They don’t teach our children how to read complex sentence structures or deal with literary language or read between the lines. In many cases, they turn children off reading altogether.

Children learn to read by reading a book that is a little beyond what they can already read. The gap between what they can read and what they could read is reduced when the child:

  • is highly motivated by the content of the book;
  • has existing background knowledge about that content;
  • is receiving good instruction from a teacher.

We don’t need books arranged in coloured boxes labelled with level numbers to teach a child to read.

Beautifully written pieces of children’s literature will do the job.

Books full of carefully crafted writing by authors whose intentions are to engage, entertain and inform.

Books that teachers can work with in the classroom showing how sounds work in words, and how words work in sentences to make us feel, see or think new things.

Beautiful books that parents can also buy and delight in reading with their children.

Why it matters

The way we teach children to read will fundamentally influence what they understand the purpose of reading to be.

When we teach children to read through schemes that tally their books, we teach them that reading is simply about quantity. If reading is about getting a reward of a pizza, then children are less likely to read for intrinsic rewards.

The claims made for well-written children’s literature are many and varied.

Reading books to your children brings you closer to them, can teach them philosophy and about world issues.

But they can do something else. They can teach our children to read.

The Conversation

Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

16 thoughts on “How should reading be taught in schools?

  1. Bec

    Hi Nor, I enjoyed this article (as you know!) and it was nice to read it here. It is amazing that there are so many different ways people think reading should be taught and learned. I wonder if we will ever find out the ‘silver bullet’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      I don’t think there is a ‘silver bullet’ or a one size fits all, but I think there are certain conditions which support developing readers. I think this article did a great job of outlining them – enjoyment, purpose, meaning and context in an environment that values reading go a long way. Thanks for reading and commenting.


  2. lsacker

    Hi thanks for interesting post. I am wondering if the question is more “how can reading be learned at schools?” Rather than “taught at schools”. I am thinking that teaching and learning are not always reciprocal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your comment. Both points made are very good. I agree that the focus should be on learning. When we take a learner’s needs into consideration, good teaching will follow. 🙂


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  4. Dayne Sislen, Children's Book Illustrator

    I have always loved to read but was temporarily “turned off” from reading” by having to write book reports on all books to get credit for reading them. Also, my teachers had strict reading lists students had to follow. These approved lists didn’t contain any books I was interested in reading. I thought they were all books for little kids. What really saved my love of reading, was during the summer, my mother would let me read anything I wanted within reason. My teachers could never believe I was able to read and enjoy the more advanced books I read over the summers.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Norah Post author

      Book reports and strict reading lists are sure fire ways to turn children off reading. What a wise woman is your Mum. We all need one of those! Thanks for adding your voice to the conversation. 😊


  5. Sarah Brentyn

    Interesting. Thanks for sharing this, Norah. This is crucial: “They may be able to decode the words on the page but comprehension of the book is less likely.” So…who cares if they’ve read 15 books? I’d rather they read 5 with full comprehension. My older son reads way too quickly and missed a lot. It’s a huge issue with us but not so much for his teachers who are just thrilled to have a student who loves to read. That irks me. We don’t get a lot of support on the “slow down” front. Anyway, I won’t go on and on as this has gotten too long already. I’ll read the original when I get a chance.

    As an aside, I wrote an article about my kids choosing to read below their reading level which was irritating at first but, after I asked them, completely understandable. It wasn’t about numbers but just getting a brain break. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for adding your voice to the conversation, Sarah, and the link to your article, which I really enjoyed reading. Good advice from a wise mum! Thanks. 😊


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  7. Annecdotist

    Interesting! I knew about assessing text for readability as a useful tool for writers wanting to ensure their words and structures aren’t too complicated for the readers they’re aimed at, but I hadn’t thought about how making that the only criterion for children’s reading would backfire. For those who’ve learnt to read quickly, perhaps their pride in a new skill will be motivating enough, but for slow readers boring books must be a real turnoff.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Anne. I don’t think many readers remember the books they were “taught” to read with, but many remember the first ones they learned to read.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. jennypellett

    Wow! I’m spreading this around to any staff that have ANY input into teaching reading, literacy and English in general. I work in a secondary school (11-16) and it is pitiful how many students can’t read, don’t want to read and leave us with limited vocabulary (even though they may leave with high level GCSE’s – what does that tell you about our ridiculous exam system!).

    Liked by 2 people


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