The link below is to an infographic that looks at helping our brains learn to read.
As a rare books curator, I get to interact with first editions of novels I love, illustrated versions of my favorite poets’ works, and lavish editions of historical engravings.
In 2015, I started using the University of South Carolina’s first edition of “Lyrical Ballads” in my survey of British literature courses. Written by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, this collection of poems is commonly thought to have launched British Romanticism.
I would bring the volume to class to discuss its visual appearance as a printed text. But each time I shared the volume with a new group of students, we found ourselves drawn to the comments written in the book’s margins by its early owner, John Peace.
Peace was, I learned, an acquaintance of Wordsworth. And some of his comments in the margins of one of the volume’s most well-known poems, “Tintern Abbey,” explore the poem’s themes of memory, place and return.
In this poem, Wordsworth describes his return to the Wye River valley after an absence of five years. He also recalls his memories of his first visit to the valley and looks forward to the memories this second visit will create.
“In this moment,” he writes, “there is life and food / For future years.”
When Peace responds to these lines, he describes a different kind of experience – visiting the poet in his home – in a similar way: “So thought I when my foot first step’t upon his threshold, and so have I found.”
It is a singular piece of literary history, and it’s one example of how the study of words written in the margins of historic texts – called “marginalia” – can illuminate the history of reading in new ways.
As prominent book historian Roger Chartier has noted, marginalia can reconstruct past reading experiences through the “sparse and multiple traces” ordinary readers left behind.
One particularly vivid example that is far from ordinary is Sylvia Plath’s copy of “The Great Gatsby.”
Reading ‘Gatsby’ with Sylvia Plath
Acquired by the University of South Carolina in 1994 from a former professor, the Matthew J. & Arlyn Bruccoli Collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald includes Fitzgerald’s personal ledger, a flask from his wife Zelda, and early drafts of his works.
It also includes an inexpensive 1949 edition of “The Great Gatsby.” Compared to other items in this collection, it might not seem like anything special.
But the book’s owner – and the words she wrote in its margins – are quite noteworthy.
The bookplate identifies Sylvia Plath as the owner of this copy, which she most likely read as an undergraduate at Smith College. Some marginal comments were probably notes she took during lectures about the novel. But others show the way Fitzgerald’s novel sparked her imagination and inspired her own work.
She wrote on almost every page, underlining passages in black and blue ink, drawing stars beside her favorites and occasionally writing notes – some quite arresting – in the margins.
Plath wrote “L’Ennui” – a French word that describes a feeling of listlessness and boredom – next to a description of the character Daisy’s world-weary view of life: “I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.” “L’Ennui” would become the title of a poem Plath is thought to have written shortly after reading this novel.
Other notes are, in the context of Plath’s painful life and tragic suicide, haunting.
She writes that Daisy shows a “desire for a secure future” – a longing that seems to have struck a chord for Plath.
On another page, she hints at masculine aggression when she comments, as Gatsby watches the Buchanans from outside their home, “knight waiting outside – dragon goes to bed with the princess.” This was a motif that would reappear in her own life: In her recently published letters, Plath details the physical and emotional abuse her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, inflicted upon her in the months before her death.
Sylvia Plath’s copy of “The Great Gatsby” speaks to the value of marginalia. As Makenzie Logue, a student of mine who is currently studying the volume, put it, preserving these notes means that you can “read The Great Gatsby with Sylvia Plath.”
Making marginalia accessible
In recent years, marginalia left by ordinary readers has become a subject of large-scale data collection efforts.
At the University of Virginia, English professor Andrew Stauffer leads a team that has made a book’s annotations, inscriptions and insertions discoverable as part of UVA’s online library catalog. Any user will be able to find such markings through a simple online search.
At the University of California, Los Angeles, librarians are developing ways to discover marginalia digitally – and quickly – across large digital collections.
Using the methods developed at the University of Virginia, my colleague Michael Weisenburg and I have organized searches for historical markings in library books at the University of South Carolina. Student workers and library staff have enhanced records for annotated volumes in the school’s online catalog.
While digital technology has made marginalia more accessible, digital reading has made the actual habit of writing in books much less common.
What would Sylvia Plath and John Peace have done if they had a Kindle? Would they have still left traces of their reactions to the texts – so valuable to scholars today – behind?
The recently released NAPLAN 2017 results and findings from the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) have got Australia talking again about how our children are faring when it comes to literacy.
We know from PIRLS, while most Australian children are meeting international benchmarks for reading at year 4, nearly one in five are not meeting these benchmarks. Australia has one of the largest proportions of students who fall below the “intermediate” benchmark into the “low” or “below low” categories, compared to other English-speaking countries, including the US, Canada, and England.
Despite the range of steps that have been taken to address literacy levels across Australia, a large proportion of children are still not meeting international standards for reading. So what other approaches could we try?
Parents: an untapped resource
Our findings from a study of 2,600 parents showed more than half of children under two and nearly half of children aged three to five are not being read to every day.
We found, while most children were being read to by an adult in the household four to five days a week, a concerning proportion were not being read to at all or very infrequently. Specifically, 13% of 0–2-year-olds and 4% of 3–5-year-olds were not read to at all by an adult at home in the previous week.
Our research also looked at how important parents’ educational values and aspirations for their children were and how they felt about their interactions with their children’s educators. The survey has national relevance, as most of the findings relate to broader parenting issues.
Why early reading is vital
We know from decades of international research that what parents do at home with their children has a profound effect on children’s learning outcomes. Children who experience enriched, cognitively stimulating home environments are at an advantage in the learning process because they have had exposure to many more words.
The evidence in support of providing a language-rich environment to children is vast. Children with language delays at school entry are at greater risk for academic difficulties. With flow-on effects to later academic and socio-emotional challenges, the imperative to tackle language and literacy problems early is paramount.
And while older children typically need less input from parents when it comes to actually looking at words on the page, that doesn’t mean the parents’ role in supporting reading diminishes. Creating a home environment that encourages time and space for books is key.
If we know reading works, why don’t we do it?
The message that simply sitting together, opening a book, and reading and pointing to words can be incredibly helpful in building the foundations of good literacy has certainly cut through with many parents of young children.
But there are many reasons parents don’t read at home. As we know from sectors such as health, simply telling people what needs to be done – such as exercising more – does not take their personal context into consideration. Alone, it’s not enough to motivate people to adopt new patterns of behaviour.
Considering how best to support parents to read more often to their children is an important question and will depend on a thorough understanding of the barriers that are preventing them from doing so. Family and work pressures and parental confidence around reading books are some possible factors that could be further explored as barriers.
A shared concern
Children’s literacy is not the sole responsibility of parents, but it’s clearly an area where parents and schools can work together. This parent-educator partnership featured in our survey, which explored parents’ views about their interactions with kindergarten, child care and school teachers.
Most parents (92%) felt comfortable communicating with their children’s teachers. Although 21% did not think or were unsure if their child’s teacher understood their child.
Also, 20% did not agree they were able to participate in decisions that affected their child at kinder or school.
Of note, fathers tended to feel less comfortable talking with their child’s teachers than mothers did.
While 82% of parents felt their opinions were valued in discussions with their child’s educators, 11% had mixed feelings about this and 7% felt their opinions weren’t valued.
Given what we know from research about the value of parents being connected with their children’s educational settings, it follows that parent-teacher partnerships are important for children’s educational outcomes.
Consequently, it’s important issues like literacy are looked at holistically. Literacy is not just as an education system issue, and not just a parenting issue. It’s a societal issue.
Parents are ready to engage
We found the vast majority of parents (93%) see their own contribution to their children’s learning in the early years as important. This supports the view that today’s parents are generally well placed for taking on information about how to improve their children’s literacy and educational outcomes.
It’s encouraging that most children are being read to at home – even if not every day. But in the context of concerns about Australia’s position in international literacy rankings there’s more to be done.
The message to parents is clearly “read early and read often”. The message for policy makers and professionals is “support parents to better engage with their children’s learning”. This could take many forms and is dependent on context. It could include strategies such as building literacy messages and materials into existing parenting support services and promoting online resources for parents, given our survey found 79% of parents look for answers online about parenting issues.
The sign on the public car park in the tiny Tasmanian town of Wynyard reads,
Egress from this carpark is to be via the access lane in the rear.
“Egress?” I wondered.
As my 21-year-old son quipped, perhaps the council had called in the local duke to write its signs. Or at least the local lawyer.
I could say all the words on the sign with very little effort, and with impressive fluency.
That is called decoding.
I had to work a little harder to understand what the sign was saying.
That is called comprehending.
The aim of reading is, of course, comprehension.
In essence, debates around how to best teach reading have been about which comes first, the decoding or the comprehending.
Research concludes these debates are redundant because comprehension and decoding are codependent.
The federal government’s recent proposal, however, for a Year 1 Phonics Screening test – which tests a child’s ability to decode made-up words – appears to support the view that decoding comes before comprehension.
Comprehension, therefore, is deemed irrelevant – at least initially.
So who is right? The researchers or the politicians?
Let’s take a look at what the research tells us about how we learn to read.
Tackling unknown words
It was the first word in the car park sign that threw me. “Egress.”
I used my knowledge of how sounds map on to letters in English to decode it. However, because I couldn’t remember ever hearing the word said out loud, I wasn’t sure if I was decoding it correctly.
It might be EE-gress or ee-GRESS, EGG-ress, or egg-RESS. It is the first, apparently. I Googled it later.
In any case my decoding efforts didn’t help me understand what the word means. In order for decoding skills to be of any use in reading, children need an excellent vocabulary to which they can cross reference as they attempt to decode.
Tip 1: teach phonics through words already in the children’s vocabulary.
Building children’s vocabularies
Before we rush out and start teaching children lists of vocabulary, words in lists are not enough.
If someone had shown me “egress” by itself on a flashcard, I might have guessed it was a bird.
Luckily, “egress” was in a full sentence on a sign in front of a car park, and all of that context helped me comprehend the word.
Without context, words are just letters on a page. This is because all words in English are polysemic – they have multiple meanings depending upon the context.
The wind in my hair. My baby has wind.
And some words keep their spelling but change their pronunciation as well as their meaning.
I’d like to wind you up. I need to wind my clock. Why do I always **wind **up doing the dishes.
Tip 2: build your children’s vocabulary by talking and reading to them so that they encounter words in all their many and varied guises. Seeing a word in many different contexts is more important than just seeing the word flashed at you many times.
The grammar of the parking sign in Wynyard also helped my comprehension.
I had figured out from the context that “egress” meant either entry or exit.
I hear a lot of language so I understand how words “collocate” in English – that is, how some words always hang out together grammatically. My experience with the language meant I knew that we exit “from” and enter “into”.
The more we hear and read real language, the more we learn about how word order works in English.
Tip 3: teach reading through real books with real language so that children learn the rhythm and patterns of English grammar.
I relied on my experience as a driver to look around and see that a median strip in the road would make “egress” from the front of the car park tricky. Life experience helps us read too.
If I write I live in a studio apartment in San Jose, your interpretation of where I live will depend upon whether you understand a studio apartment to be a basement bedsit, or penthouse bachelor pad. It will depend on whether you understand San Jose to be an affluent tech hub or an working class industrial city.
The words alone cannot carry all the meaning of my message. You bring your life experience to the task of reading my words.
Tip 4: give children lots of real life experiences and talk to them about what they see. Trips out and about, and chats about things beyond their everyday environment are important.
Are we giving poor readers the help they need?
Good readers have a full repertoire of skills, each dependent upon the other.
They have excellent oral language and a wide vocabulary. They know what words mean and this helps them decode.
They can decode and this helps them locate the word in their existing vocabulary.
They know the structure of English through exposure to authentic complex written and spoken language.
They use rich life experiences to support their comprehension of written texts.
Poor readers need all of these skills too. Yet our interventions for poor readers typically only address one skill – decoding.
Our declining results in international tests of literacy show us that our 15 year olds can decode but they can’t comprehend.
Until we pay full attention to all the other reading skills, the decline will continue.
Phonics teaching in UK primary schools is rightly recognised as giving children the essential building blocks needed to become successful readers. Indeed, we are so pro-phonics that little is done to raise awareness about other methods, even those which might be seen as an accompaniment to phonics, not a replacement for it.
Schools tend to stick to what they know and, with more and more demand being put on teachers to raise standards and achieve excellent Ofsted reports, there is little in the way of “free time” to be allocated to testing out new methods, even those aimed at children who have had phonics training but who still have reading difficulties.
Phonics is based on training children’s “segmental phonological awareness” (that is, raising their awareness of letters and sounds and teaching them segmenting and blending skills). But there is a second part to phonological awareness known as “suprasegmental phonology”. It refers to the rhythmic components of spoken language that accompany the segmental elements, such as stress placement, intonation or pitch, and timing.
There is a growing body of evidence which supports the idea that awareness of, or sensitivity to, these rhythmic components is related to reading at various levels, including reading acquisition, comprehension and, more interestingly, reading difficulties. What this means is that children who have reading difficulties also tend to have poor speech rhythm sensitivity – and the better a child’s speech rhythm sensitivity is, the better their reading skills tend to be.
Surely, if we can somehow improve childrens’ speech rhythm sensitivity, their reading skills will also improve, right?
During my time at Coventry University, this question interested us enormously, yet there was no intervention that had attempted to train children on their awareness of speech rhythm as a possible way of enhancing literacy skills. So we set about designing a set of materials to help children gain better awareness of these rhythmic elements of spoken language.
We wanted the intervention to be suitable for children who were non-verbal – that is, children who do not speak, whether this is due to a disorder or just shyness – as well as children across a range of ability levels, so we decided on a picture and sound format, where children were presented with a picture card and a corresponding prerecorded audio sound for each item. This meant that children didn’t have to give a verbal response and that the format of delivery was repetitive to ensure some level of understanding between sessions. The intervention was designed to run for ten weeks, giving time for pre and post-test assessments to be administered within a school term.
We ran two experiments, one with reception children, age four to five years of age, who were just starting to learn to read – and one with children in year three, aged seven to eight years, who were falling behind in their reading. In each study, the intervention was compared to a traditional phonological awareness intervention and a control.
The results were very promising. In both the beginners and the older struggling readers, the speech rhythm intervention resulted in significantly greater gains in reading than the control intervention. This means that speech rhythm training is effective both at the beginning of reading tuition and once children have already received some formal training.
One of the things that interested us most is that the children in the second study were categorised as being struggling readers. For the speech rhythm intervention to work for these children is heartening and important. It means that this could be an alternative way in to teaching these children the skills they need to become successful readers.
Two papers describing similar findings, supporting the notion of speech rhythm training in struggling readers, have also since been published. However, there are no other studies to date which have investigated the effects of such training methods for beginner readers.
What our research adds is that speech rhythm training can also be effective in children who have yet to receive formal reading tuition, meaning that it can be implemented effectively from the start of primary education.
This is an exciting prospect for reading researchers – and it opens many doors for further investigation. It also has the potential to significantly improve reading instruction in schools – and will in fact soon be doing so, through a new programme which incorporates this speech rhythm sensitivity training.
As parents, we know how important it is to read to our children. Many families include this as a regular part of the bedtime routine.
While we feel confident this is contributing to our child’s literacy development,
new research shows that this nightly routine could also be used to help improve maths skills.
How reading can help your child learn maths
The study by researchers in the US gave 587 students in year 1 (between 6 and 7 years old) tablets featuring an app with short passages to read with their parents.
Parents would read these passages with their child and then answer questions based on the text. Families used the app on average 4 times a week between the Autumn and Spring of 2013-14.
One group read stories which contained a mathematical focus, which allowed children and their parents to discuss maths in a natural way and complete simple problems together.
Each passage came with five questions ranging in difficulty from preschool to fifth-grade level and covered topics including counting and arithmetic, fractions, geometry and probability.
There was also an additional bank of questions for families who wished to explore the passage further. Families could complete as many questions as they were comfortable with after reading the story.
A second, comparison group read the same passage with the specific maths content removed and answered questions which focused on recalling facts, inferring information and spelling.
The results were overwhelming.
The students were tested before and at the end of the study and those who read the maths stories, adapted from the Bedtime Math app, showed significant improvement in their overall mathematics learning during the year.
When comparing the children in each group who used the app most frequently, the study saw a three month advancement in maths achievement for those who read the maths-focused stories.
Helping parents boost their confidence in maths
Research shows that parents tend to place more importance on language learning than on mathematical development when their children are young. A reason for this could be that parents don’t feel as comfortable with teaching maths, compared to literacy.
But research shows that when parents are stressed about maths, their children learn less mathematics over the school year and can also develop the same negative feelings towards the subject.
Children who feel anxious about maths are also less likely to engage in the classroom and will avoid mathematical tasks.
This avoidance leads to missed learning opportunities and a greater sense of potential failure.
Once the cycle has begun, it can be hard to redirect this momentum.
While the research focused on stories designed for an electronic device, the findings highlight some key points for parents.
Sharing stories with a mathematical focus, and the discussions which are then created, can contribute to an increase in achievement at school.
For parents who are struggling with their own mathematical anxieties, this comes as welcome news. The study goes on to suggest that this sharing of stories and discussing maths with our children, can help parents become less anxious in this space.
The federal Government recently committed $6.4m to support the development of maths resources for students. This forms a part of the government’s agenda to improve the teaching of science, technology, engineering and maths subjects in our schools.
So how can parents use books to help improve their child’s maths skills? Here are some suggestions:
Reading tips for parents
Read books with mathematical concepts to your children.
In some books the content is obvious – we are all familiar with Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Try reading these as well:
- 365 Penguins by Jean-Luc Fromental
- Leaping lizards by Stuart Murphy
- Math for all seasons: Mind-stretching Maths Riddles by Greg Tang
- My Grandmother’s Clock by Geraldine McCaughrean
Consider asking your local librarian for some other ideas. Look for books with amusing pictures and colourful illustrations – we know how this attracts children to read.
Talk about the book with your child, as you would with any other story.
The mathematical elements will naturally come into the conversation and should be encouraged – this will help children to see maths as part of everyday life.
By simply including books which include mathematical concepts in nighttime routines, parents can feel more confident that they are contributing to the mathematical development of their child outside the classroom at the same time as creating a less stressful environment for discussing mathematics.
Kylie will be taking part in an Ask An Expert Q&A on Twitter from noon to 1pm on Thursday, November. Head over to Twitter and post your questions about learning and teaching maths using #AskAnExpert.
Page 99 Test is a social network for authors to post page 99 of their book so that users of the site can test their book. The theory is you open page 99 of any book to get the feel of it and to see if it is something that you would like to read – does it grab you enough for you to want to read more? So authors post there page 99 for book lovers to read and then to rate and comment on. So it is a site that you can give feedback to an author prior to the book being published. Anyhow, have a look at the links below and learn more.
You can listen to a podcast about Page 99 Test and the founders of it at:
Visit Page 99 Test at:
I have spent a lot of my time around books. I love books. I can’t have enough books – at least it certainly seems that way. I’m always on the lookout for books. I don’t buy a lot of new books these days, however, if there is a good one – well, I just have to buy it.
I’ve always read a lot. Early in life I probably read more out of necessity in order to pass subjects and exams. It wasn’t until I left school that I really got a passion for books. What spurred my passion for books was my growing interest in Christianity and my subsequent embrace of it. I just wanted to learn and to learn as much as I could. So I started to buy books
Somewhere along the track I became interested in reading books of other subjects as well, especially books to do with history. I also read novels, but for me to read a novel it has to have a great plot. One of my favourite authors is Tom Clancy, which probably gives you some idea of the type of novels I read.
Of course I collected books on horticulture (I trained as a horticulturist), cooking, computers, travel, wilderness and other areas that I was interested in. However my real passion in books has always been theological and historical.
At the moment my life is in a ‘treading water-like’ situation. I’m probably still another 6 months away from moving into another home to rent (I currently live in a caravan park in a cabin), so the vast majority of my books are in storage and I can’t get at them because they are quite some distance away and I don’t have a car. There probably isn’t a day that goes by that I wish I had access to some book or another. I am longing for the day when I’ll be able to make use of all my books again.
I’ve probably managed to collect another couple of boxes of books in the time I have been away from them and I am slowly accumulating a collection of them in the cabin. They are enough to get me by at this stage, but my various interests are crying out for the books to assist me in them.
I have begun to place a listing of the books I own on my web site at particularbaptist.com and will eventually add them to my Shelfari presence as well. A look at the list (which is nowhere near complete) soon gives an idea of the number of books I have.
See the list at:
See my Shelfari Profile at:
I have also started accumulating books online at both the particularbaptist.com website and the Kevin’s Family – History Site. These two virtual libraries encapsulate the two main areas of my passion for books – theology and history.
It is for these two libraries (other than my own interest of course) that I am buying out of copyright theological and historical books. Gradually I am building up my collection of online books in these libraries, sharing my passion for books and the wealth in books with a much wider audience.
Visit the libraries at:
Not only do these libraries contain the works that I have collected and put online, they also have many links to others works that others have placed online. In short, these two virtual libraries have an enormous amount of resources in them – enough to keep the most avid reader going for a life time.
I have now started the ‘At The BookShelf’ Blog and the ‘Reformed Reading Group’ at Shelfari to provide another aspect to sharing my passion for books, especially in the two areas I have mentioned – theology and history. With these two latest sites I will be able to interact with visitors and discuss various books, what we have learnt, questions and issues raised, enjoy fellowship, etc. So I am really hoping that my visitors will join the Reformed Reading Group (I am thinking especially of Reformed Christians here obviously – though others are most welcome) and get involved in the discussion, as well as having visitors interacting via the comments provision here at ‘At The BookShelf.’
Visit the Reformed Reading Group at:
What I intend to post here in the Blog are reviews of the books I have read and possibly some quotes from some of the books also. I will probably also be posting URLs for new books (old books) I post in the two virtual libraries also.
What else is left to say but please get involved at some of the sites I have mentioned? You won’t regret it.