1 Beginning to read – ‘Who?’, ‘What?’, ‘Where?’, ‘Why?’

What do you remember about your early reading experiences? How do they compare to those described in the case study below?

Case Study 1: Memories of learning to read

In the following extracts, seven Indian teachers recall their early experiences of learning to read. As you read their recollections, make notes on who helped them to read, what they read, where they read and why they read.

  • a.My mother told many traditional stories to amuse me and my sisters. Sometimes she wrote them out and illustrated them. She encouraged us to make our own picture books from recycled paper and cut-outs from magazines. I had a small collection of books that we made together.
  • b.My grandfather was very strict. Every day he made me memorise five words from the dictionary. It was the only book in our home. Once, when he wouldn’t give me some money, I said to him ‘You are a miser!’ He was annoyed, but he also laughed. I had a large vocabulary, but I didn’t read any storybooks.
  • c.When I was a child, my father used to read us a passage from the Vedas each evening. Then he would ask us to explain it. The passages were complex and difficult to understand. One day my elder sister secretly took the Vedas and read the next passage out to me. She explained its meaning very clearly so that I understood it. That evening my father was very pleased with me!
  • d.My grandmother drew words on the ground with a stick and told me what they meant. These were the first words I read. Then my sister taught me to read from her school textbook. She did this because I was tall and appeared older than I was, and she worried that I would be teased if I went to school and could not read.
  • e.In my home and village there were no reading materials. The first time I saw written words was when I went to school. My teacher was my inspiration. She told us lots of exciting stories while we sat on the floor and listened. I remember those stories to this day. She then wrote out the stories in big letters on chart paper so that everyone could see the words. Because I had already memorised the stories, I felt I could read them easily.
  • f.My school teacher taught us to memorise poems. Over time these got longer and longer. It was fun to memorise a long poem! I would impress my parents by reciting poems to them. Sometimes they asked me recite a poem to visiting guests at home. I still can recite the Independence Day poem by Rabindranath Tagore. I love the way it starts: ‘When the mind is without fear/And the head is held high/Where knowledge is free…’. I didn’t read poems in books until I was much older.
  • g.I did not enjoy reading until I was an adult. My school teacher only used the textbook in our classes. We read the lessons and did the exercises. The content was dull and far removed from my interests. The stories that I heard at home were much more exciting I liked staying up at night, listening to my uncles as they told stories from the Ramayana. When I was older, I liked going to the cinema. All films are stories, really.

Pause for thought

What did your notes on these extracts reveal?

  • Who? Did it surprise you that so many different people were mentioned as being central to helping these individuals to learn to read? One person remembered an inspirational teacher; others talked about a member of their family. Whatever additional support your students may have outside school, your contribution to their early reading success is very significant.
  • What? Learning to read should draw on a range of source materials and involve a variety of activities. Listening to stories, reciting poetry, making books and memorising words are just some of the ways mentioned in these accounts.
  • Where? Learning to read can take place in many different settings. Children may be introduced to reading in one place and continue to learn in another.
  • Why? Children readily copy those who find storytelling and reading absorbing and enjoyable.

The above accounts show that learning to read is an interactive process that involves a range of people, sources of material and experiences. Do any of the practices and resources described feature in your classroom? Why or why not?

Activity 1: Your memories of learning to read

You will now reflect on your own memories of learning to read. Write your name in the centre of the chart in Figure 1 and complete the four other sections with your answers to the following questions:

  • Who introduced you to reading?
  • What did you read first?
  • Where did you do this?
  • Why did it happen?
Figure 1 Your memories of learning to read

Share your recollections with a colleague. What are the similarities and differences between your experiences of learning to read?

Do you draw on your early reading experiences in your classroom teaching? Why or why not?

Pause for thought

Now look at the chart from the perspective of the students in your classroom. Instead of your own name in the middle of the chart, think about the students you teach.

  • While people outside school may also play a part in introducing your students to reading, as their teacher, you are the ‘Who’ in this chart. Be a reading role model to your students. Show them that you enjoy books and reading.
  • ‘What’ your students read in the classroom is your responsibility. Look for resources and activities that will inspire them to become readers. Show interest in what your students read outside the classroom as well.
  • In this chart, the ‘Where’ refers to their school; but your students’ home, temple or mosque may also be important places in their early reading experiences.
  • The ‘Why’ of reading will be unique to each student. Some of them will read out of curiosity, while others may read out of duty.

Case Study 2: ‘Boxes on the Bus’

Mrs Lata, a Class I teacher in Indore, describes how she engaged her young students with a simple story called ‘Boxes on the Bus’ (see Resource 1).

The story is very simple: it’s about the different people who get on a bus, each of whom is carrying a box. Each box contains something different. Gradually the bus gets fuller and fuller until there is no room for anyone else.

Before telling the story, I thought of some items that the boxes could contain. I began by showing my students a big cardboard box that I had brought in from home. They were quite excited about it. I then recounted the story. Whenever I said the phrase ‘… and in the box was …’, I invited my students to join in. Among the items I included in the boxes were a button and a goat.

In each case, I asked a student to come to the front of the class and illustrate the item with an action. Labani curled her thumb and forefinger together to represent a button and Padmaj ‘walked’ four fingers up his arm to indicate a goat.

After I had told the story once, I retold it, pausing between each section so that my students could repeat it after me. I then told the story again, with my students reciting it while using actions at the same time.

Two days later, I paired up my students, combining the more confident ones with the less confident ones wherever possible, and asked them to retell the ‘Boxes on the Bus’ story to each other from memory.

Two students had missed the earlier lesson, so I selected pairs that could support them and explain what they had learnt, and placed the absent students with them in groups of three.

I then invited the whole class to help me cut out images from some colour magazines to match the content of the story, paste them onto the cardboard box that I had brought in and write words alongside to label them.

The following week, I found a picture book about a boat journey, which prompted me to think up an alternative version of the story – this time called ‘Boxes on the Boat’. For this version, I would ask my students to suggest what was in each box rather than telling them this myself.

Pause for thought

Consider the following questions and discuss them with a colleague if possible:

  • What makes ‘Boxes on the Bus’ a reading activity?
  • What were Mrs Lata’s students learning about language?
  • What were they learning about letters and sounds?

Compare your ideas with ours.

Students need to play an active part in early reading activities. The young students in Mrs Lata’s class were actively engaged in the ‘Boxes on the Bus’ story, because:

  • they listened to the story together
  • they used their voices and bodies by repeating the key phrase ‘… and in the box was …’, and by copying the actions invented by their classmates
  • by decorating the box with pictures and labels, they were able to link the sounds within the familiar story to letters, words and phrases.

Students get great satisfaction from listening to an enjoyable story several times. It enables them to get to know the characters, anticipate what will happen next and retell the story themselves.

Activity 2: Locating resources to enhance a simple story

For this activity you will plan some early reading activities based on the ‘Boxes on the Bus’ story in Case Study 2, or an alternative story of your choice. Begin by looking around your classroom, school, home and community. What resources are available to enhance the telling of the story? Consider the following:

  • suitable objects
  • pictures
  • people who can contribute
  • materials to make things from.

Note down as many ideas as possible for enhancing the story using the resources you have identified. Here are some suggestions:

  • Many stories may be illustrated by pictures or objects. For the ‘Boxes on the Bus’ story, you may have located boxes of different sizes, a toy bus, a poster image of a bus, and a number of small objects or magazine pictures to illustrate the items contained in each box.
  • Did you think of any people who could contribute to the telling of the story? Does a family member of a student in the school drive a bus? If so, either they – or perhaps the student, if older – could be invited to talk about this.
  • Together with your students, you could make a poster of words and pictures from the story.
  • You could also organise a simple role play, with one student as the bus driver. Divide the class into two groups. Those in one group each carry a box with something inside it onto the bus. Those in the other group must guess what is in each box. Alternatively, you could make up a tune and get your students to sing the story.

Make a plan to try out your ideas and resources in your classroom. Bear in mind that several short activities over the course of a few days are more effective in reinforcing young students’ learning than one or two longer ones. Discuss your ideas with your colleagues and then implement your lesson plan.

Pause for thought

  • What did your students learn from this series of activities? How could you tell?
  • Was everyone actively involved? What could you have done differently to ensure this?

Storytelling – recounting stories from memory – is one way of introducing your students to reading. It familiarises them with the flow of stories and stimulates their interest in what happens next. You can assess what they learn by their responses to your questions about the story, and whether they can retell the story on their own, or with your support. Be sure to check the understanding of all your students and retell the story in different ways if you think they haven’t been able to follow it.

Another way to support your students’ in developing early reading skills is through reading books aloud to them.

Why this approach is important

2 Reading aloud to your students