Listening the first step to reading

Children's comprehension and vocabulary improves when parents read to them. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Children's comprehension and vocabulary improves when parents read to them. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

In his insightful book, The Rights of the Reader, Daniel Pennac comments: “When someone reads aloud, they raise you to the level of the book. They give you reading as a gift.”

People who love reading know the precise value of that gift. But there are those who cannot read, both children and adults – and they should be remembered this September, in Literacy and Heritage Month.

In days gone by, storytelling and, later, reading aloud was common practice.

Listening brought its own pleasures: the first lines of a compelling story anticipated thrills like the “Ntunjambili” chant, opening the sheltering rock to fleeing, terrified children, or the call of “Open Sesame”, revealing the cave in which the 40 thieves’ glittering treasure lay.

This was how substantial learning took place. History, values and knowledge were shared. In Mesopotamia, just 6 000 years ago, the few who could read were called scribes rather than readers, surmises Alberto Manguel in A History of Reading, to emphasise the “greatest gift” of “having access to the archives of human memory and rescuing from the past the voice of our experience”.

Today, many of us are entranced by the vast visual world of digital stories. But would the thousands of children who struggle through the education system benefit from listening to them? More specifically, for children learning to read, what is the significance of hearing well-told and well-read stories?

A clear answer may elude many parents, teachers and librarians, and there have been few magnificent storybooks published in languages that most local young children and their families speak. The pervasive insistence that children learning English must learn in English as soon as possible does not help to change this situation. Nor does the way in which “skills-based” teaching methods for initial literacy tend to be prioritised over nurturing an interest in and a love of stories and reading.

But listening to stories is indeed significant for learning to read. Comprehension and vocabulary grow strong in children who have stories told and read aloud to them.

For several decades research has confirmed this, as well as the fact that knowledge of story structure predicts children’s later general reading success.

Of course, learning to read cannot happen without close encounters with the mechanics of print, but it’s is far easier if healthy story language roots have already embedded themselves in fertile minds.

When story time involves children and adults poring over words and illustrations together, crucial concepts relating to print become integral to the powerful process – even though much of this learning may go unnoticed.

But when children don’t have such experiences, and struggle to make sense of what they’re learning, we often attribute this to their need to be taught particular skills rather than appreciating their need for linguistically and imaginatively rich input.

Stories chosen for interest rather than for the attainment of a particular reading level challenge and expand children’s intelligence as they explore exciting ways of being and of expressing themselves. Without bidding, they incorporate them into their play and other activities. And, being finely tuned to our expectations of them, when we show faith in their power to grapple with the big ideas and emotions in the stories they hear from us, they will often surprise and delight us with their capabilities.

These are a few reasons why anyone who cares about the future citizens of South Africa should be polishing up a story or two to tell or read to the children in their lives.

Carole Bloch is the director of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa, which is driving the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign.



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