Reading: words in context

My last week’s blog featured phonics in reading. Yet, while phonic skills are undoubtedly the essential foundation for reading at word level – there is far more to reading than words alone. The end goal of reading is comprehension. After all, if children do not understand what they read, what is the point of phonics? Reading starts with phonics as children must be able to decode the words – but alongside phonics, two further sets of skills enable comprehension to develop and flourish – namely, language as sentence construction and context. Last week, I explored phonics, so now let’s explore briefly these other two vital components.

Language: How might each of these sentences continue: Bill put his key in the ……? Ignition? Lock? The car …..? Started? The door….? Opened? The sun…….? Shone? Disappeared? Went behind a cloud? So many options but what does each option depend upon? It depends partly upon the word or phrase that precedes it. So both language and grammar determine which words can follow from others, following grammatical rules. Assuming that we understand and use grammar in speech, as we read, we anticipate the likelihood of which words will come next. For example, after ‘the’ – we expect an adjective or a noun. After a noun we might expect a verb (the sun…..). So we can see how our understanding of language and sentence construction supports reading, alongside the phonics.

The third, equally vital, element of reading is context. Good readers subconsciously use context to check the sense of what they are reading and to ask questions as they go along – what is this text about (its main idea)? Let’s assume a book is set at the seaside, on the beach. Child readers might anticipate words such as – play, sea, sand, bucket, spade, water, wet, splash, paddle, pebbles, swim – amongst many others. So if the words that they decode do not fit this particular context (beach), an inner questioning mechanism alerts the brain to an error in the word reading process. The child stops – checks – amends the word – then reads on. When this inner questioning mechanism (context) is effectively switched on – stories make sense to readers because comprehension is firmly in the driving seat, steering thinking.

So, we have identified three components of effective reading that must operate together – word (phonics), sentence (grammar and syntax) and context (setting). Children in Key Stage 1 should gradually develop all three sets of skills together – for reading to emerge fast and fluent.

But here’s the crucial question. What could (and should) all adults do to help children to merge these three elements effectively and efficiently – in order to become fluent and skilled readers, ready to tackle a broad range of more complex texts throughout Key Stages 2 and 3? Learning to read must never be an end in itself. Reading is a tool for all learning, across the school curriculum and throughout adult life. Poor readers will always struggle to succeed because reading cuts through the heart of what we all do as humans – study, work, hobbies, social events.

So now that we have identified (briefly) what reading is – how can parents support the reading process? A few ideas for helping your child to comprehend:
Ask questions: what is this story about? Is it set – in town, on the beach, in space?
What words do you expect to find in the story (before the reading starts) – was your child right?
Question each paragraph – to encourage ongoing, inner checking
Ask your child to draw pictures to illustrate the text and demonstrate understanding. What details from the text are in his picture?

Next week I will delve further into the phonic element of reading, looking particularly at words made up of parts – as ‘beginnings, middles and ends’, with suggestions for more games and activities to keep your child engaged. Watch out for my next blog on reading.

Meanwhile all you need to know is out there in my books for parents. Start by finding out WHAT your child learns and HOW. My books will help – Support Your Child with SEND (Book 1) and at successive Key Stages (Books 2 to 4), by Sylvia Edwards, are available from Lulu in printed form, and from Amazon. Visit my website: Parents: Help YOUR child succeed.

Good luck.

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