How do you teach children to read?

Written by: Professor Ruth Finnegan | Published:
Image: Rachel Backshall

When it comes to literacy and reading, we dismiss the skills of skipping, skimming and scanning at our peril. Professor Ruth Finnegan urges educators to consider an additional approach to reading

How do our children read? Do we really know? Well I know how I did. Aged 11 I adored Walter Scott novels and read them all. On my own of course, my school thought I should use the “junior library” (ugh): Enid Blyton, Noddy, and such like.

When I say “read”, well I don’t exactly mean that. Remember all those unending Scott descriptions? Who actually reads them (except school teachers – maybe)? Uplifting and beautifully written no doubt – but, face it, dead boring to a reader in her pre-teens. Or anyone.

So, of course I just – hm, missed them out. Easy. My younger brother would watch my eyes moving down the centre of a page then my fingers turning over. The same the next, then pausing a moment ... then on.

That of course was how I learned to love Scott novels. How I learned the craft of a researcher (what established academic ever reads every word of another academic text?). And so – I went on reading. And living.

Is that what our children do? Or should do?

Skipping: Do they skip? Just omitting chunks. Simple. Turn the page, no worries. Great for academic and informative text and for narrative too. There is an exception. Poetry is a creature on its own: something to be savoured word for word, read aloud, heard. Prose for translation too (well do I know it from Greek and Latin texts) or close grammatical and stylistic analysis. Written examinations too perhaps.

But the rest? Yes! Skipping is never necessary but depending on the purpose by all means one choosable and often immensely desirable option.

Skimming: Not quite the same. It’s a lovely image: a stone winging its way over the water, touching down from time to time, then leaping lightly from spot to spot, gathering beauty as it goes. A lovely way to approach text. Many children know it too – how else did they learn, before us oldies, to cope with the profusion of the web?

Scanning: Not quite the usual sense of the term, but this is surely what we do with visual art, with pictures: an overall view first (how crucial for written text too) before – if we so wish – scanning for the detail. Think of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. The colour and shape first. Only then the detail. Or a contemporary example, Rachel Backshall’s silk painting inspired by the novel Black Inked Pearl (below).

A lovely colour abstract? A stained glass window? An immediate scan reveals that at once. Look closer: a little beetle’s head and antennae emerge at the top (from the novel), round it the arch of heaven before which the heroine spends so many weary centuries (might learning the arts of cross-reference come in here? how wonderfully complex “reading” becomes); then African trees, Irish sea, Garden of Eden, and perhaps the buildings of the city of God on the beetle’s back – then perhaps more? Can our children do this?

So is that one way that as teachers we should help children approach a piece of dense text: scanning for “the gist” to enable them (if that is their purpose) to delve for the detail? And is that too not a skill that, already perhaps partially learnt skimming the internet, we should help children learn better still? Or encourage them to continue their acquisition of it by their own selves?

We are good at the phonetics and the grammar and the ABCs and the 3Rs and all of that. Skimming and scanning may figure, in passing, in the national curriculum. But it is scarcely highlighted. For older children, especially for the prolific readers, should we not accord greater value and time to the alliterative three Ss? To Skip, Skim, and Scan?

For that is yet another way to empower our growing children, not so much for reading speed, as it is usually seen, but as a preparation for life. Do we really know if our children can read like that?

  • Professor Ruth Finnegan is a former teacher and was one of the first academic members of staff of the Open University. Still an OU emeritus professor she is now “retired” but more active than ever writing award-winning fiction as well as her continuing academic books.


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