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Reading means loving

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Teachers are the people who are largely responsible for shaping the young minds, and thus for the future of their students.

Should we read to children? If yes, when do we start? Is it at all important to have students read any texts? Should we try to introduce reading aloud in class? Can reading in all its forms be incorporated into an online lesson?

Let me quote Doctor Spock. A young mother asked him when bringing up a child must begin; in turn he asked her how old her baby was. “Three weeks”. Well then, said the celebrated pediatrician, you are three weeks late! There is some truth in the quote. As a mother and teacher, I follow the family wisdom. Initial reading, more like showing pictures and distinctly pronouncing the relevant words, starts at the age of one, give or take a few months. It should be an integral part of a baby’s regime, for instance a few minutes before sleep, and it must never be done by force, “whether they want it or not they must listen” approach. Why is early reading synonymous with loving? Imagine a typical picture: a baby sits in the adult’s lap, turning the pages slowly, listening to the voice more than to the words, absorbing the new knowledge in the warm comfortable ambience.

When young children between the ages of 5-7 start school, we can probably distinguish between those who got used to reading/listening, and those who never had the experience.

Reading in primary school. I would start with very simple Read Along – Sing Along books, with the familiar fairy tales. The books for young learners are invariably the same in format: each page shows a large illustration and a very short text, sometimes just one line. “And the pumpkin turned into a beautiful carriage!” Is it possible to do this in an online lesson? Yes it is. We may begin by inquiring if the students have such and such a book at home, if they like listening to fairy tales or stories. There may be fascinating very short stories in our current textbooks. Use whatever you feel comfortable with. Ask your students to open up the book at the page you want, read those few sentences aloud to them. Suggest that they ask questions about the words used, the picture, encourage any comments. I had the whole class chorus insistently, “This witch is BAD! BUT she lives FAR AWAY!” Be ready for your most inquisitive student or students ask that very difficult question, “WHY is she so bad?” Or “Why does the wind blow?” Our role is to produce an answer; “I don’t know” naturally is not an option.

If you and/or your class do not have any helpful short stories, create your own! First, choose a tale you wish to use. Record yourself telling it slowly and distinctly. Why? This is a very useful trick for any age and level: we may need to repeat the same sentence many times; rather then grow hoarse doing that, just play it. And modern children are conditioned to become attentive once a button is pushed. Next, choose some pictures, photos, gifs to accompany your story. You may flash them on-screen and suggest that your class give a description, or predict how the narrative may continue.

Longer texts are part of the curriculum in middle and high school. I never leave them for students to tackle as homework. They may read a portion; one advanced student may read the whole text before the lesson. They should know that any problems may be brought into your class, any questions can be asked, any difficulties solved together. Surprisingly, teenagers love “chain reading”; this type of exercise is rather easy to perform both in face-to-face and in online teaching. Students simply open up the same page and read aloud, either in sentences or in short paragraphs. After each individual reading the teacher allots some time for questions, discussions, translation if needed. It is very important to learn what exactly your students’ interests are. They may be quite fluent in spoken English and yet feel that they lack or have almost no knowledge of the vocabulary needed in certain subjects. I conducted open lessons which were visited by my colleagues from the district schools; quite often there would be more adults than teens in the classroom. Why? My physical-mathematical class would read aloud, translate, and then discuss serious articles from “The Scientific American” magazine. I would teach the same Golden Rule every year: When confronted with a sentence, especially a title, which contains several nouns written one after another, start translating from the last one. And each year I would notice my colleagues busily writing notes too. “Human genome change project grant denied” is one example of such a construction which does not exist in my mother tongue. Students, as well as teachers, may know every word yet not understand the meaning without your help.

What should we do if a student or the whole class did NOT read anything before your online lesson? ALWAYS be ready with a Plan B. They may have been too tired, too overwhelmed. I noticed some time ago that more and more news sites post materials about fatigue and even lethargy caused by not only the continuing lockdown measures and restrictions, but also by the uncertainty, and by lack of real human contact. It is hard to determine who suffers the most, children or adults. I would say all of us feel the negative effects, and I believe that the reason includes all the factors. I would ask what, if anything, they read, watched, talked about; in other words, I would start with the students’ interests. We should be ready for the unexpected, as usual, be it a face-to-face or an online lesson. “There are more than a million alligators walking around in Florida!” OK, so we’ll start our session by talking a bit about alligators. As long as the class speaks English, we are fine.

Since it became clear that last year smoothly flowed into this year, I cautiously give the same advice to my colleagues and to parents. We feel the same fatigue, frustration, helplessness as everybody else, regardless of the country and climate. We teachers are also human. And we must present that omniscient face to our students daily. Think up some self-help techniques, contact your colleagues, do not hesitate to ask for help and advice. Share what you have. Never lose hope.

Nina Koptyug.