—An adult and a child (learner) read together.
—The learner chooses the text and controls the process, deciding whose turn it is to read and for how long; reading in unison is also an option.
—The learner further chooses when the session will take place and how long it should last.
—The adult should offer only praise and encouragement and should refrain from correcting the learner’s intonation.
—The adult may correct the learner’s pronunciation of individual words, offering brief explanations of underlying pronunciation rules, but this practice should be carried out with sensitivity and should be discontinued altogether if it seems to be affecting the learner’s enjoyment.
—If the learner hesitates to pronounce a word, the adult may step in after five seconds or so, offering the correct pronunciation and encouraging the learner to copy this just once but moving on regardless of whether the attempt at copying has been successful.
—The adult should not attempt to sound out words or break them down into constituent syllables.
—The aims of the process, to promote reading enjoyment and understanding, should be complementary since understanding is a prerequisite for enjoyment.
—The importance of understanding for their own enjoyment must be impressed upon the learner, who should be encouraged to ask for an explanation of anything that is unclear.
—The adult should nevertheless try to gauge the learner’s comprehension level and should check their understanding of anything that seems to exceed it.
—The intonation and expression with which the learner reads can serve as a guide to how much they have understood, but formal mastery of these aspects of the language does not necessarily equate to full understanding of what has been read.
—The adult should suggest a change of text if the learner loses interest in the one currently being used or finds it so difficult that understanding requires a frequency or level of explanation with which they do not feel comfortable.
—As a separate activity, basic information extraction can be taught using food packaging, which the learner should scan for details of ingredients and/or storage.
Having in many cases helped to teach their children to master the mechanics of reading, parents then go on to play an important part in developing their children’s appreciation of literature by reading to them after school or at bedtime. This is an extremely valuable activity – for the child’s intellectual development as well as for the bond between child and parent – but it is by no means all that parents can do at this stage to promote their children’s reading skills.
In what follows I shall outline a paired approach to reading typically undertaken by parents and learners together and aimed at deepening learners’ textual understanding and enjoyment. The skills developed in this basic activity will then be built upon in the section on Advanced Paired Reading.
The steps outlined in this initial section will most commonly be used for younger learners just starting to read independently. Since the texts used at this stage should be chosen by the learner, these steps will most likely be applied to fiction. More advanced approaches to fiction and other types of textual material are covered in the section on Advanced Paired Reading.
What is Paired Reading?
The basic idea of paired reading is that an adult and a learner read together, with the adult in a supporting role.
The following guidelines are aimed at the adult member of the pair, whom I shall address in the second person, often using the imperative mood. The general third-person pronoun ‘they’ will be used for the learner.
Putting the Learner in Control of the Process
Many learners, having started to associate reading with school, will be in danger of developing a sense that reading is a chore imposed upon them from above. One of the aims of paired reading is to counter this view, and this means that the learner needs to be given as much control over the process as possible.
Choosing a Time
Allow the learner to decide when the reading session will take place. Avoid times when they would rather be doing something else such as watching television or playing on the computer.
Length and Frequency of the Sessions
Aim to make the sessions a daily occurrence, but don’t expect them to last too long. Fifteen minutes is probably enough for younger learners. Give up at the first sign that the learner is losing interest.
Choosing a Text
Allow the learner to choose the text you’ll be reading. If you both run out of ideas, the Initial Steps section of the article on Advanced Paired Reading contains advice that can be used to aid the process of text selection.
When to Change the Text
Once you’ve started reading together, be alert for signs that the learner is losing interest in the text. Once you’ve ascertained that this is the case, suggest that they abandon the text for a new one, also to be chosen by them. Before they make their choice, however discuss what they didn’t like about the old text: did it prove to be too difficult or did it just fall short of expectations? Understanding why the old text wasn’t suitable will help guide selection of a new one.
When to Give Up Completely
If after a few changes of text the learner seems unable to summon interest in anything, consider discontinuing the reading sessions completely – at least for now. Before you do this, however, consider the possibility that what the learner dislikes is not the texts but the burden of reading aloud. Tell them that perhaps they do enough reading at school already, and that you’d like to carry on reading with them but that you’ll do it all by yourself for now. Suggest that they keep a copy of the book open to read silently along with you, but don’t insist upon it. See whether removing the pressure of having to read aloud increases their enjoyment.
If you have just one copy of the text, sit close together to enable the learner to follow the text at all times.
Take it in turns to read aloud. If the learner is unwilling to read alone, try getting them to read with you in unison. Adopt a reading pace with which the learner is comfortable but do not slow down any more than is absolutely necessary.
Allow the learner to choose when to read and when to listen, but make sure that they are following the text even when listening. Try using your fingers to follow text and encouraging the learner to follow suit.
Making Corrections and Comments
As the adult, your role is to support the learner. Your comments should accordingly be exclusively laudatory, and your general tone should be positive. Remember to give occasional nods and smiles of encouragement.
Since the aim is to make the reading session feel as little like an academic exercise as possible, there should be a minimum of explanation. Learning should instead come from exposure to good example: improvement in the learner’s reading should come from seeing good practice modelled by you, the adult.
If the learner mispronounces or misreads a word, try not to interrupt them to correct but wait until the end of the sentence or passage.
How to Correct
When correcting play down the extent or significance of the error and emphasise the difficulty of the problematic item: ‘Just one thing: you missed out a syllable from “incoherent” — that long word there.’
As this last example suggests, you should offer some explanation for the error without going into too much detail. Don’t just say, “It’s present, not present,’ for example, but don’t get into technicalities with something along the line of, ‘The stress is on the first syllable when it’s a noun and on the second syllable when it’s a verb’. Go instead for something like, ‘That’s all great, except that word there is more difficult than it looks: I present you with a sword, but I give you a present’.
Don’t ask the learner to break up or sound out mispronounced or misread words. Get them to copy your pronunciation, but just move on if they find this difficult. The same applies if the learner struggles to decode or pronounce a word – in which case give them five seconds or so and then pronounce it for them.
Acknowledge errors of performance (i.e. those due to momentary lapses) but don’t treat these in the same way as errors of competence (those due to ignorance). Say something like, ‘You’ve read that word correctly in the past, but perhaps you’re not used to seeing it in this context’.
What to Correct and When
By following the text when it is the adult’s turn to read aloud, the learner should develop a sense of how intonation, pausing and voice modulation are guided by punctuation. If the learner is having difficulty with sentence intonation patterns, don’t correct their intonation by rereading aloud but do encourage them to scan each sentence for intonation guides (length, complexity, question mark or other punctuation) before starting to read it.
Finally, exercise sensitivity when making corrections and make sure you do nothing to damage the learner’s self-confidence. If reports from school suggest that reading is a problem area, or if the learner’s errors are so frequent or persistent as to suggest that there may be a problem, consider allowing them to read without interruption or correction.
Comprehension and Enjoyment
Reading is not an end in itself; it is the means through which we reach the goals of learning, understanding, receiving a message, obtaining information. Promoting textual understanding must be the ultimate goal of any reading programme. If paired reading, with its emphasis on fun and enjoyment, appears to neglect this goal – or even to be incompatible with it – this appearance is illusory. Reading without understanding soon ceases to be enjoyable, and if the learner is enjoying the paired-reading sessions this almost certainly means that they are understanding what they read.
If learners are unlikely to enjoy a text that they find too difficult to understand, however, they are equally unlikely to enjoy one that they find facile. A sense of challenge or complexity is often a prerequisite for enjoyment. In other words, even generally enjoyable texts are likely to contain passages whose meaning the learner does not fully grasp.
When to Check Comprehension
You will get some sense of the learner’s comprehension level from their reading; if they mispronounce words or get the sentence intonation wrong, they will almost certainly need some help with meaning. The errors they make when reading aloud will give you some sense of what they are likely to find difficult when they are listening; this will help you know when to stop and check comprehension at times when it is your turn to read aloud.
Please bear in mind, though, that correct pronunciation of difficult vocabulary and correct intonation patterns do not necessarily guarantee understanding. The sound system of English is not so complex that somebody who has mastered its basics is unlikely to be capable of predicting the pronunciation of words with which they are unfamiliar. Working out the meaning of unfamiliar items and of complex sentences is a different matter.
Encouraging the Learner to Ask Questions
The best way to guarantee understanding is to make sure that the learner has no inhibitions about asking you to stop and explain anything that is unclear. Because children’s natural tendency is to want to please adults, they may need some persuading of the need to do this – fluent readers because they do not want to dent the impression of textual mastery, and hesitant readers because they do not want to try the adult’s patience any more than they are already doing with their reading errors.
It may be necessary first to address these worries with a few words of reassurance and praise. The less fluent readers should be assured that there is nothing unusual or wrong in stopping now and then to correct any mispronunciations and to make sure that everything is clear, while the more fluent readers perhaps need to hear how impressive is their formal grasp of the written language and how this formal mastery means that they have made considerable progress towards the ultimate goal of understanding textual content, but that it is only natural that they should still have some work to do before reaching it.
In both cases, you need to emphasise the need for these sessions to be enjoyable and how two conditions need to be in place in order to ensure this. The first is that they should be able to understand and follow the text. The second is that their understanding should not require so many interruptions and explanations as to induce tedium or discomfort in them. If they tell you that they are indeed unhappy with the frequency of interruptions that full understanding seems to require, consider different ways of providing explanations and ask for their suggestions. If no satisfactory way can be found, suggest changing text.
Don’t Persist with a Book They Can’t Understand
What you should not do at this stage is to offer them the option of continuing the same text but with insufficient or no explanations. This is not just because the consequent gaps in their understanding will cause them to cease enjoying the text and to lose interest. It is important that learners do not become so familiar with the sense of being adrift in a text, of losing their way, that they approach each new reading venture in a defeatist spirit, with the expectation that they will get little or nothing from it. The mindset that needs to be instilled in them is that of the efficient reader confident in the expectation that they will master each text that they encounter, and that they will come away from it with all that it has to offer them.
How to Help the Learner Understand Difficult Words and Passages
Finally, there is the question of how you go about the process of explaining — how you go about trying to clarify ideas that the learner does not immediately grasp. Ideally the learner should do as much as possible to work this out for themselves, so it is best to encourage them to make educated guesses using contextual features and the feel that they get from the unfamiliar words. (‘What does “sputtered incoherently” suggest to you? What kind of activity is it describing? That’s right, speech. What is it saying about his speech? Consider what your speech would be like if you were in his situation. Also look at the words he’s saying — is that just a straightforward statement?’)
If the learner is persistently unresponsive, try simplifying or breaking down the questions, or try to find an approach that involves them in the interpretation/explanation process. If all else fails, simply offer your own synonyms for unfamiliar words or your own rewordings of difficult phrases or sentences, but consider changing the text if you find yourself having to do this too often.
Simple Paired Reading for Information
One feature of efficient reading is the exercising of discrimination, the ability to separate the necessary from the unnecessary. This is best served by the techniques of skimming and scanning, as taught at Key Stage Two of the National Curriculum for schools in England and Wales. Paired reading can be used to introduce a basic form of these techniques. Food packaging is an ideal material for this purpose, with the learner encouraged to scan packaging to find out whether a certain ingredient is present (one they do not like or to which they are allergic) or about storage (whether the food can be frozen, for example). This can be done on shopping trips or at home. Even if it is done at home, however, it is recommended that this more practical paired reading activity be kept separate from the regular paired reading for enjoyment.