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Reading Support (unconditional – supportive – engaging – enjoyable – rewarding – friendly)

Unconditional Support for the Struggling Reader

– removing barriers to failure

 by Sally Collard DipSpLD(Hornsby) Dragonfly Teaching – 2011

This article has been written to highlight the success of using an alternative strategy to support reading to engage those who are experiencing failure, frustration and lack of motivational reward.

A project using this approach with parents of dyslexic children in Cornwall proved to be very successful – more details on request (www.cornwalldyslexia.org)

 Reading failure breeds low self-esteem, frustration and exclusion. Poor readers are hampered in their ability to access the language, information and rewards of achievement afforded to their peers. They face embarrassment, disappointment and demotivation. And, as if that wasn’t enough, they are then often subjected to torturous methods of intervention which only perpetuate their lack of reading success.

When the brain is faced with a collection of words, it immediately strives to make sense of their purpose. An   advertisement flier full of special offers and promotional phrases invites the reader to register meaning; an inventive story weaves character and and intrigue through its choice of words and linguistic design; an informative text fashions factual terms and phrases to convey interest and understanding. Remove comprehension, and your texts become no more than a collection of letters.

 A number of publishers now produce books which are written for older readers using language and layouts which support their lower reading ability. Barrington Stokes, for example, offer books which engage such readers, by authors renown for their writing success. Proficient readers also enjoy these texts, promoting equality, and by using buff pages and clear presentation, learners with scotopic sensitivity and dyspraxia can also discover the accessible welcome offered by these reader-friendly books.

Having accessed a book which captures their interest, the struggling reader will still encounter words which fall outside their reading vocabulary.

English spellings, with their fickle variations, do not provide the transparent match between letters and phonemes that phonic-fed readers are often led to believe. When invited to ‘break-down’ and ‘sound out’ an unknown word (a common request to the struggling reader), the learner soon discovers how irregular, erratic and incomprehensible the match often is between letters and sounds – a fact that proficient readers often fail to recognise, which then hampers their ability to recognise how infuriatingly demotivating this ‘sound-it-out’ advice is to the aspiring reader.

We must remember that the majority of children learn to read through an access to texts, encouragement and motivational success. Their brains, like sponges, lap up the appearance and meaning of words in a manner that exceeds the remits of reading programmes or teaching methods. To believe that struggling readers missed out on the reading lessons afforded to their peers (and so therefore need them repeating, louder, and more often), is akin to awarding a footballer’s skills solely to the quality of his or her coach. Whilst focussed training will help to develop processing weaknesses, underlying abilities, motivation and rewards are vital to achieve ongoing success.

For those whose brains find the assimilation, retention and recall of code-based materials more difficult (such as learners with dyslexia), a greater understanding of reading is needed to help overcome the barriers to text which frequently underpin their difficulties. Perhaps the most important of these is that reading is led by comprehension (as outlined above); that the experience of language and the way varied contexts manipulate words to conjure up stimulating thought, are influential to reading fluidity; and that the act of reading itself is fuelled by prediction.

‘The horse is in the ……………’ primes the brain to trigger possibilities such as ‘field’, ‘stable’ and ‘race’. The corresponding word can then be quickly identified according to overall shape. This priming occurs at a subconscious level, fuelled by multiple clues based on experience and expectation (underpinned by understanding the meaning of words and knowledge of the context in which they appear). The more knowledge you have about words, their meanings and context, the easier you will be able to predict forthcoming words.

As a ‘top-down’ approach to reading (as opposed to a ‘bottom-up’ design which entails breaking a word down into its component letter-patterns and building it up into sound), the reader is drawn down the path of discovery and learning. On occasions, a reader may be completely baffled by a word’s spelling formation, yet can still extract meaning through guesswork.

The more reading flows, the easier it is for the brain to assimilate meaning, to build up pictures and thoughts, and predict and digest the reading content. These neurological activities, stimulated within short-term memory, are informed and accompanied by intrinsic information beyond that conveyed solely by letters and words. Emotional triggers of excitement, apprehension, curiosity or amazement fuel the brain’s desire to turn over the page, devour the text, and reap the rewards of reading.

Every time the short-term memory is interrupted with a word-decoding task such as ‘break it down’ and ‘sound it out’, the brain’s attention is diverted. The mass of extrinsic and intrinsic thoughts are shattered by their displacement, and replaced with, at best, a letter-to-sound matching activity and at worst, an emotional flood of despair, aggravation and hopelessness.

An occasional digression that interrupts the flow of text to decode the spelling of a word, is acceptable, but for the struggling reader, whose reading skill will challenge their ability to read a number of words in a text engaging their interest, the ‘bottom-up’ approach completely incapacitates their ability to develop reading confidence and success.

To avoid the damaging and disabling effect of short-term memory interruption, a policy of unconditional support brings dramatic results. This simple solution provides access to reading experience by removing anxieties, stresses and distractions alongside the achievement of motivational engagement and rewards.

Unconditional support requires that readers are given the solution to unknown words immediately. They are not asked to decode them, nor expected to shoulder the pressure of interrogating letters and words which have tripped them up. They are told that this shared reading approach is there to keep the sentences rolling; the words and their meaning flowing; the aim is to find out what the text is about, not study the details of spellings.

Once a page is completed, time is then taken to discuss the unfolding events to further support the relationship links between words and their meaning. ‘Why did Tim shout at his brother?’ ‘How do we know that Sara is frightened?’ ‘Would you go down in the cellar without a torch?’

This shared discussion builds bonds of communication as ideas and knowledge are exchanged. For parents of struggling readers, this shift to shared reading and companionable chatter is far more rewarding and achievable than facing the alternative options fraught with battles, frustration and disengagement. It is not surprising that home-reading activities decline when children are failing: parents do not invite conflict into their home, nor welcome the guilt and despair their children’s lack of achievement heaps upon them.

Teachers can integrate bottom-up lessons into these unconditional reading activities by subsequently incorporating the analysis of key words that posed a decoding challenge in preceding text. By revisiting these words in isolation of contextual flow, the brain can question and explore the links between shape, letters and sound without disengaging the brain from its focus on meaning. It is vital that words and their spellings are closely attached to their meaning, but by pacing letter-analysis away from contextual flow, the disastrous effect of short-term memory overload is avoided.

Reading improvement can be quite astounding when engaging texts are used alongside unconditional support. The emotional barriers of failure and exclusion are removed; the learner is engaged and rewarded with motivational texts; adults are relieved of their ‘teaching’ role with regards English orthography; and, best of all, the learner is exposed to the experience, variety and diversity of written text which is vital to access and expand their understanding and use of language, information and knowledge.

However, to champion a single reading approach, is to ignore the complexity of neurological factors which drive the activity of reading. To understand there are links between the squiggles of letters and the sounds they represent, is very important; to encourage self-sufficiency through silent reading and through the application of advice-led word-attack skills, supports independence; and the use of audio-tapes and other media-based avenues into language and knowledge, all complement the development of confidence, learning and skills.

But we must recognise that for those who find reading a difficult skill to master, it is the failure to succeed as measured by the standards of the society in which they live, that can have the most detrimental and arresting impact on further development. To disable them further through the use of inappropriate teaching methods, will only result in their further exclusion from the rewards and opportunities available to those who prosper as confident readers.

By replacing failure with access to reading success, learners are engaged with the language and purpose that motivates learning. Furthermore, extended opportunities to experience the expression and meaning of text, complements their additional literacy accomplishments, fuelled by the acquisition of knowledge, interest and linguistic skills.



Sally Collard DipSpLD(Hornsby) is a qualified and experienced dyslexia practitioner.

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