Colleen: To Teach Reading

Colleen GarrettWorking toward SIT’s MA in Teaching English as a Second Language in US Public Schools and a Vermont teacher’s license, Colleen responds to a challenge from her professor in a class on literacy.

She identifies what she wants to remember.  It is a personal statement and one that all teachers must answer for themselves.  Doing so, Colleen demonstrates her beliefs about teaching and learning, about others, and about herself.

Written in the winter of 2009, Colleen was braiding her SIT learning, her previous teaching experience in Taiwan, and her observations of English learners in US public schools.

The Five Most Important Lessons for Teaching Reading

Literacy, the ability to read, is an essential tool for anyone who wants to participate fully in society. However, it is an unnatural act. People are not born with an innate ability to read as we are born with the innate ability to speak. Stringing together phonemes and graphemes and then organizing these abstracts into a comprehensible order that can be decoded and created with the ease of fluency is not an easy task. Children with their extremely flexible and malleable brains are capable of mastering this skill only with the careful guidance of teachers and attention to their learning processes.

There are as many ways to teach reading as there are learners that need to master reading. Most, but not all, of these learners are young learners.  Teachers do best when they have clear ideas about their student’s personal learning needs and styles and if they have a good collection of tools for teaching to the variety of needs and styles.

I believe the five most important lessons that I must remember and incorporate into my teaching of reading are:

  1. Each learner is unique and must learn reading in a way that accommodates the individuality of that person and their relationship to reading.
  2. Appropriate scaffolding must be in place to help motivate the learner and stimulate the learning process. Reading can not be taught in a vacuum, it must be relevant to the reader, the reader’s worldview, and to the texts that surround it. In other words, reading must have a purpose connected to the reader.
  3. The reader needs the skills and tools to decode unfamiliar text. As learning develops or increases the material a student is presented with grows in complexity and deepens in meaning. Decoding tools must be in place to help the reader grow with the text they must use. A teacher will not always be around to help.
  4. Decoding ability is not enough, fluency must be achieved so that the process of reading becomes not work, but pleasure, and the processing of reading must become personal and emotionally connected to the reader and not divorced from the reality in which it exists. Therefore the act of reading must be extensive, inclusive of all the interests of the reader and connected to almost every aspect of a reader’s life. For the learner reading must be considered essential to the life and well-being of the reader, indispensable, and must become an act of second nature.
  5. For reading to occur with ease, fluency and speed silent reading must be cultivated. Vocalizing slows the input of printed text since it must be focused on each grapheme, or word, one at a time. For reading to take on meaning and be digestible at a rate conducive to the short attention spans of a busy mind in the fast placed life of the average reader, it needs to be processed silently and encompass perhaps as must as an entire page in a single glance or at the least a full sentence or paragraph so, that meaning can be found as quickly as possible.

There are more lessons in reading that may have equal or greater importance to teaching this invaluable skill, however these are the aspects of reading I find most necessary to my effectiveness as a teacher.

Reading as a personal act is important because each learner brings their individual needs and wants to the table when learning such a complicated skill. A teacher needs to account for the whole person, their learning abilities, their relationship to the material, and material’s relationship to the world and context of the learner.

As I reflected on these five lessons I believe to be most important for teaching reading, I am struck by how interrelated they are. None can be used effectively without the other four.

  • The first lesson is that each student is uniquely endowed and motivated by personal factors necessarily relies on the other lessons to support the learning reader.
  • Decoding and scaffolding are useless, if the student is unwilling to approach the text.
  • Personalizing and relevancy to the student are useless if the learner lacks the tools needed to make sense of the text.

All five lessons are completely reliant on each other and on many other factors related to teaching reading.


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One Response to “Colleen: To Teach Reading”

  1. David Roderick Says:

    Great news about the continuation of the MAT program at SIT. I had a wonderful year there as part of my celebration of reaching 65 years young. Favorite activity was actually playing on the SIT Soccer team but of course, cherish my MATESOL degree (2003).

    Since then I have taught at Koc University in Istanbul for two years in a highly academic English program (EFL) for first year students, followed by two years at Jordan Applied University in Amman, Jordan as Chair of the English Dept specializing in preparing university students for the Tourism and Restaurant Industries. I was fortunate to be admitted to the ELF (English Language Fellow) program out of Georgetown U and the US State Dept. That was an incredible experience! I definitely recommend ELF to all SIT graduates.

    My wife and I have been on sabbatical for the last two years, exploring the USA from the comfort of our small motorhome, spending lots of time biking, hiking,kayaking and fly fishing, especially in the Northwest. We leave in May for a summer in Alaska.

    Now we are thinking of teaching in China as our next EFL adventure.

    Thanks to the great faculty of the MA TESOL program. I am so happy to learn the program will keep going. I loved every minute of it!

    Best regards to all,

    David Roderick (Eugene, OR)

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