A Reading Journal Should Be a Commentary and not a Copied Book

Children have to, gradually, acquire the knack for reading with the help of something that attracts their interest, and associate reading with pleasant experiences; only then will it be easier for them to learn to comprehend more complicated texts, says teacher Hana Košťálová.

According to Hana Košťálova, it is now more important than ever to teach children not only to read but also to grasp the meaning of the text. Only 20 percent of the population that reached the school leaving examination before 1989 do not need a deep comprehension of texts.

Hana Košťálová | The Programme Director of the Helping Schools Succeed project run by the family foundation of Mrs Renáta Kellnerová and Mr Petr Kellner; she has experience with courses where teachers learn critical reading methods to pass on to children. “Well-read children master reading techniques as they devour books. Weaker readers need strong support to manage to master them,” she says. The series that Hana Košťálová and her colleagues have prepared for MF DNES will outline the techniques using which children can be trained to read with comprehension; the first part will appear tomorrow.
Are today’s children able to read?
Able to read: does this mean that they decode the text, i.e. decipher the letters and cope with them at the level of literal understanding? This, I think, they manage. Then there are more demanding levels of reading. The reason why children are failing is usually the fact that nobody is guiding them towards this. Well-read children climb to these levels through devouring books. Weaker readers, who do not have such experience with texts, need strong support to manage them.

What are these more demanding operations with texts that we are talking about?
The ability to detect the addressee and to draw conclusions, and to identify what the text withholds from the reader. The Czech curriculum does not require teachers to teach these skills. Earlier, most of the population was actually not required to know much more than to just comprehend texts literally and a number of teachers are continuing in the tradition in which they have grown up. Reading is an automated activity, similar to driving. I sit down in a car and go, but, after leaving the car, I would have a problem explaining how. The same applies to teachers. They themselves are capable of working with texts instinctively but new skills are required to teach this.

Why is this so important if a few years ago, nobody wanted schools to teach children this?
The demands have changed. The communication situations and the communication methods for which texts are used are more challenging. Enormous amounts of texts are being produced, and they are combined with graphics, music or video and it is difficult to discern whether or not they come from serious sources. It is now also necessary that a larger proportion of people understand them. Earlier it was enough when approximately 20 percent of the population had a deep comprehension of texts, but now, people working in professions that earlier had nothing to do with texts should also be able to manage this. If only because of e-shopping.

And how to teach children to read?
It is a well-known fact about reading that quantity translates into quality. Good readers will plough on even when they have difficulties comprehending a more exacting text. These readers acquire perseverance through positive experience with reading. It will not help these readers if they know they must read or if they are told that they will be good readers in a little while. They need a lot of positive experience and acquire such experience through reading stories, through experiencing a state of being engrossed in a book. The state of mind that they reach when they are immersed in a book is called the flow and it induces a feeling of happiness. But a child associates feelings of happiness with reading as early as when sitting on their mother’s lap and they are reading together.

It therefore does not matter what the child is reading as long as they can become absorbed in the book?
It is true that children should acquire the knack for reading with the help of anything that attracts their interest. It only makes sense to try out something else once they actually get into reading. This entails some searching sometimes. One teacher told me about a child whom she could not bring to reading for a long time. She once arrived and asked us: if you come across a tractor shop please bring a catalogue, this child loves tractors. This too can be the way – the child can then immerse themselves into reading a story with a tractor driver as one of the characters. The important thing is that children become immersed in reading. When this step is successful and they associate reading with a pleasant experience, it is possible to begin teaching them various strategies such as what they should do when they have difficulties reading a text. That they can go back in the text, try to summarise what they have read so far, clarify the meaning of the words they don’t understand. There are a number of techniques for learning to read more challenging texts, but this must be counterbalanced by a positive experience. It is a very hard nut for teachers to crack, and places great demands on them to find the counterbalance.

Is there any point in recommending children the books that their parents have read?
Children are very sensitive about whether or not the book they are reading reflects the current facts of their lives. When they address problems that they do not know in their lives, or when the principal characters are not understandable for them, they will abandon the book. For example, girls love horses, the same as in the past, but the experience of today’s ‘horse people’ is different than it was twenty years ago. Not even Harry Potter is resonating with children as much as a few years ago.

You are talking more about teachers than parents. What can parents do for their schoolchildren as regards reading?
The school is the last place where the child is granted protected time for concentrated reading. When the teacher says that the children will be reading for 20 minutes and is able to ensure that the children are not distracted, it can happen that even a child who has not yet acquired the knack for reading lets themselves be entrapped by the book rather than boredom. For older children, parents cannot do anything like this; it will not help to say: now, you will be reading for 20 minutes.

Parents don’t matter, then?
They do. Reading can be promoted from a tender age. As early as the age of two or three months babies can start to become accustomed to small picture books; then there is this long stage of browsing books on the lap, which gradually changes into reading aloud for the child. It is important to be guided by the child – parents should offer, but not impose. It is good to put in place rituals, to reserve time for reading in the evening or after lunch. And as children grow they should be offered books for older readers. And although they already read books on their own, do keep the rituals and do continue to read aloud.

In spite of that many parents who have read to their children are complaining that they have lost interest in books.
The crisis arrives at the moment when the child reaches the end of the stage of children’s reading, usually at the beginning of adolescence. Children are no longer attracted to the books that have brought them satisfaction until then. They feel that they need something further, but it is difficult for them to select from books for older children and it is challenging for them to reach such books. These children need greater support from their parents. The ideal situation is when the parents are able to look out for new books on the market. It is a bit of a trap, in particular for educated people, because some books for children are beautiful but written more for adults, escaping the child’s capacity to enjoy them. Reading aloud is also important. Where a child would find difficulty on more challenging text the adult helps the child with the hard work when reading aloud for the child. The adult helps the child comprehend the text through phrasing, intonation, and combining words into whole semantic concepts.

And what about adolescents themselves? Children in the eighth or ninth year at school.
The parents cannot do much at this age. When a child this age diverges from the reading path, the parents can only wait and see whether or not the child will return to reading. Forcing children to read does not help and the parents’ example already has a lesser weight, although it is still important for the child’s relationship to reading whether or not parents read and have books at home.

What can teachers do?
Create a peaceful reading environment for children, which we have discussed. Teachers should also set an example with a view to showing children that reading is important. It is not enough to talk about it; children should perceive it from the attitude of teachers. Children should know that they will read together because it is important. An ideal situation is where the school puts in place a system whereby children leave the school building with a book and read at home. But the dividing line between a duty and an experience is brittle. Where the school is successful, teachers are able to persuade children not only verbally but also by their attitude to read on their own. The risk inherent in the matter is that reading becomes an unpleasant duty.

What do you think about reading journals?
This is difficult. It is useless when children write the storyline of the book in their reading journal; they should record the dates on which they started and finished reading the book and whether or not they liked it, and also bibliographic details. Although a method for keeping reading journals differently exists. In the ‘double journal’, records are written throughout the reading as a personal response to what the child is currently reading. Children note in the journal the section of the text which has attracted their attention, and then their own comments on the text, using their own words.

Among other things, you organise critical reading courses for teachers. Is it difficult for them to start with this?
It is difficult to shift to a different way of interacting with children. In addition, the teacher must ensure that children are not disruptive. There are cases where an enthusiastic teacher who wants to carry out a change enters the classroom, but she is not so confident in the method, and classroom discipline collapses. And so she again uses what she herself has been through and knows to do best. She must have some support before she gains firm confidence in the new method of instruction. And she also needs a safe environment in which she is not afraid of trying something new and taking the risk that it will fail.
Hana Košťálová (55), a teacher of reading, has been engaged in the promotion of reading literacy since the 1990s. She graduated from Charles University in Prague in Czech Language and Teaching and from 1997 worked as the coordinator of the Reading and Writing for Critical Thinking programme. She now serves as the Programme Director of the Helping Schools Succeed project, which is utilising her experience with the implementation of the critical reading methodology at schools.

Author | Radka Hrdinová, MF Dnes



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