What happens if we read a passage together?
Even as a teacher I was not fully aware of this. Reading together in class was commonplace just a few years ago. We teachers could resort to books which were describing topics from the children’s close sphere. We agreed that putting together all observations in class will produce a much richer understanding of a text. We knew that a selection of positive, caring texts is essential and could resort to them in readers. We knew that reading aloud will implant a vocabulary and syntax getting more sophisticated much more sustainable, which is crucial particularly for less privileged or bilingual children. Language is the most important means of understanding between humans and this aspect makes it most vital in a conversation about the contents of a text.
Now that this common understanding about the importance of reading together is getting lost – individualised learning prevents teaching in class – I am becoming aware of what treasure our children are losing.
In order to convey the priceless value of reading together I want to describe a reading experience which I recently was part of.
I had occasion, in a learning group of six children, aged between 7 and 12 years, to have a passage read in turns by the children and to talk about it. Topic was: leaving one’s country, not today but 300 years ago. The purpose was to convey the troublesome history of emigrants from Switzerland around 1700 and to allow the children to emotionally understand a part of our country’s history.
“Emigrants from Switzerland” – a text from an old reader – was, concerning wording and content, unfamiliar for today’s (Swiss) ears. Who knows today about the King of Prussia, where Prussia or even East Prussia was? “The Swiss overpopulation of the time” – would it still be today? “Around 1700” – how long ago is that and what didn’t they have at the time? The title “emigrants” – does it sound like Swiss? The parents of many pupils did experience emigration. But they did emigrate from other regions in order to come to an orderly and peaceful country. And why? “Because you can find work here”, a pupil from Macedonia said.
We read the story in small paragraphs, summing up the content of each. Leaving the village with household goods on an ox cart, the uncertain long way – all these realities from another time create inner images with the children, raising questions like: Why did the mother have to console the children? Was the plague really over in the deserted villages in Prussia? Did they all reach their destination? The confirmation that a family had arrived safely took a long time and the parents did not know for months if their sons and daughters had survived the journey. Not all families made it: In spite of the great misery at home, one family turned back, for homesickness. “But then it all was in vain!” a nine year old girl cried compassionately.
All these comments showed that the children were actually living and feeling with the people of this time, provoked by a text of which I had not expected this clear reaction. It was a reading experience also for me. None of the children were bored although there was no real action involved, no fantasy travel, nothing “suitable” for children – just the representation of difficult living conditions in a simple realistic manner, without self-pitying, but with a natural respect for the courage of the time. The purpose of reading aloud was always to understand together such that also the younger children were reading unexpectedly fluent and clear. Everybody was following and feeling along, was asking questions or comparing with our time. The participants in this active reading community were inspiring each other. The core was grasping the reader passage and the dialogue about its statements. The issue was not competences or learning objectives but education.
I could relate many such reading experiences, some of which actually prompted pupils to change their career aspiration to “writer”.
It is a great pleasure for each teacher to experience this joint and mutually inspiring thinking and feeling, facilitated by a book. Because in a story like this the children can reflect their own life. They “understand” the events described which could serve as an example. This style of grasping a reader passage is focused on the dialogue among the children, the message of the text and the comments of an adult. This approach is taking the personalities of the children serious while conveying motivation and knowledge interactively. Such reading experiences are also possible at home or with grandparents. It only takes the right book and the infectious delight of an adult. We all can help to preserve our reading culture for the next generation. •
(Translation Current Concerns)
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