Reading is defined as an active cognitive process that involves decoding symbols to understand and arrive at meaning. Shihab (2011) argues that it involves connecting an author’s idea to what the reader already knows, this is known is using schemas. Reading readiness has been defined as the point at which a person is ready to learn to read and the time during which a person transitions from being a non-reader into a reader.
Reading readiness is a state of development, which involves the maturation of specific processes and prepares the child mentally, physically, and social-emotionally. The National Open University of Nigeria (2013), argues that physical readiness demands that the child possesses functional speech organs, can hear and see, and that the child can demonstrate evidence of at least low-level word recognition and perception.
Mental readiness refers to the child’s intellectual ability and accurate pronunciation of words and sounds. It also connotes a child’s oral capabilities, such as speaking in complete sentences, the recitation of rhymes, listening to and telling short stories, as well as using a variety of vocabulary. Mental readiness also demands a child is able to engage in simple dialogues with others. Socio-emotional readiness entails that the child should be emotionally and psychologically stable in order to accommodate the social and cognitive tasks of reading. Aside from emotional readiness, the child must demonstrate a keen interest and desire to read.
It is important to understand what factors affect reading readiness and the theory behind it. In doing so, we can help tackle low readiness in children upon entry into primary school. There can be a wide variation of ability within a first-year class, especially in relation to reading. It is apparent that some children enter school able to recognise some words and even read short texts, while others are unable to recognise letters in the alphabet. In my essay I shall be discussing the social and cognitive theories, which attempt to explain reading readiness; and making recommendations based upon psychological research on how to tackle low readiness.
Psychology would suggest that reading readiness can both be encouraged and hindered. One social psychology theory which aims to explain differences in children’s readiness to read, is the Home Literacy Environment (HLE). This term is used to describe the literacy-related interactions, resources, activities and attitudes that children experience at home. The Home Literacy Environment is conceptualized as a diverse interactive experience that is a key component in emergent literacy acquisition (Schmitt, Simpson, & Friend, 2011). Research has established the importance of early literacy experience in the family context for young children’s pre-literacy skills and for later reading achievement (Lonigan, 2006).
Abundant research has provided insight into the importance of home environments for children’s reading literacy development. Early literacy experiences lay the foundation of the learning-to-read process prior to formal schooling. They include a broad range of family activities, such as exposure to literacy, parent-child storybook and picture book reading, as well as opportunities for literacy interactions between the family members. Psychologists such as Wood (2002) argue that to encourage children to explore literacy, families must have access to print resources and literacy material. Parents’ attitudes to reading activities are also reported to have an impact on the home literacy environment, as they determine the extent to which parents themselves get involved in activities and encourage their children to do so.
Social psychologists such as Bandura (1961) argue that children learn and base their opinions and interests from those around them, and so a lack of interest or involvement in reading at home from parents would project onto the child, and so hindering their readiness to read. Parents who engage in many literacy activities with their children foster the development of positive attitudes to reading (Sonnenschein & Munsterman, 2002). From a rich literacy environment positive effects can be expected with respect to early language skills and emergent literacy, which in turn support the development of reading competencies (Bus, van IJzendoorn, & Pellegrini, 1995; Senechal, & LeFevre, 2002). Providing richer, more interactive experiences with print for children, for example by using decontextualized language, prompting children to explain or predict events in the story, may scaffold children’s developing language skills.
Preschool children who have enjoyed a rich HLE, and thus have already experienced literacy from an early age, enter school with a head start in reading literacy, proportionate to their preschool years, compared to those children who were not exposed to a rich HLE. The advantages include knowledge about principles of language and texts, pre-literacy skills such as phonological awareness, and understanding the importance of literacy.
This fact indicates that the time of entering primary school is rather late for compensation. Therefore, it is important that measures to foster reading development in the family are taken at an earlier stage. The implementation of family literacy programmes, especially for families with low academic background, could be one way to help reduce social disparities (McElvany, & Artelt 2009). A lack of exposure early on may intimidate children entering school who have no prior knowledge, and thus delay readiness even further. The home literacy environment theory would therefore conclude that to tackle low reading readiness upon entry into primary school, children need to be exposed to rich literate content from an early age.
The reliability and validity of this research must be considered; some researchers have used conservative measures of the HLE that measure only one indicator, commonly the availability of books at home, or simply the amount a child is read to. While in comparison, others have included broad conceptualizations including demographic variables, parent-child text interactions, parent’s reading habits, playing word games, and visiting the local library (Schmit et al., 2011; Levy, Gong, Hessels, Evans, & Jared, 2006; Lyytinen, Laasko, Poikkeus, 1998; Senechal, LeFevre, Thomas & Daly, 1992).
The inconsistent measures of HLE make it more difficult to infer an overall conclusion that providing a child with a home learning environment will increase reading readiness; simply because we cannot confine the definition to one single factor. Therefore, further research into which specific aspects of the HLE are most beneficial to children would provide us with valuable insight.
The above research suggests that a lacking home literacy environment will lead to low reading readiness in children when starting primary school. However, alongside the abundance of literacy exposure and reading materials in homes, studies found high correlations with mother’s literacy ability and their child’s. One explanation for this may be genetical. A parent whom has more highly developed literacy skills is more likely to have these materials in the home environment, and encourage their child to read.
On the reverse side of course, a parent whom is lacking in these literacy abilities is unlikely to be pushing their child to or exposing them to rich educational and interactive content. Therefore, it must be considered that the reported correlations between a rich home literacy environment and readiness to read are purely that, correlations, and that the true causation is genetical. Further research into families where parents lack literacy skills but encourage and surround their children amongst books should be undertaken and compared to those with both high literacy skill and HLE, and those with neither.
Piaget’s (1936) theory of cognitive development explains how a child constructs a mental model of the world. He regarded cognitive development as a process which occurs due to biological maturation and interaction with the environment. According to Piaget, children are born with a very basic mental structure on which all subsequent learning and knowledge are based. A schema is a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information. Schemas can be useful because they allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting the vast amount of information that is available in our environment and are a way of organising knowledge. Schemas are the basic building blocks of some cognitive models and enable us to form a mental representation of the world. Piaget (1952, p. 7) defined a schema as “a cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning.”
Schema theory is a cognitive explanation of how readers use prior knowledge to comprehend and learn from text (Rumelhart, 1980). The term “schema” was first used in psychology by Barlett as “an active organization of past reactions or experiences” (1932), later schema was introduced in reading by Rumelhalt (1980), Carrell (1981) and Hudson (1982) when discussing the important role of background knowledge in reading comprehension (all cited in An, 2013). The fundamental principle of the schema theory assumes that written text does not carry meaning by itself. Rather, a text only provides directions for readers as to how they should retrieve or construct meaning from their own previously acquired knowledge (An, 2013).
According to schema theory, comprehending a text is an interactive process between the reader’s background knowledge and the text. Efficient comprehension requires the ability to relate the textual material to one’s own knowledge. As Anderson (1977, p.369) point out, “every act of comprehension involves one’s knowledge of the world as well”. Reading comprehension operates in two directions, from bottom up to the top and from the top down to the bottom of the hierarchy. Bottom-up processing is activated by specific data from the text, while top-down processing starts with general to confirm these predictions.
These two kinds of processing are occurring simultaneously and interactively, which adds to the concept of interaction or comprehension between bottom-up and top-down processes (Carrel and Eiserhold, 1983. Cited in An, 2013). Teaching reading can be accomplished by using the first three of the four cognitive stages that psychologist/biologist Jean Piaget developed. The stages suggest that children begin by collecting sensory and motor information, and then gradually organize that information into first symbolic thoughts and then abstract ones. Reading requires both the understanding of symbolic thought to translate sounds into letters, and abstract thought to translate words into ideas. The fourth stage, formal operations, begins around age 12 and is concerned with adult-style abstract thought beyond that which is needed to learn to read.
Schemas are based on past experiences and therefore in young children this is hard to implement as they have a lack of life experience. Piaget believed that new-born babies have a small number of innate schemas – even before they have had many opportunities to experience the world. These neonatal schemas are the cognitive structures underlying innate reflexes, however the schemas necessary to comprehend text are far more advanced and need to be developed over time.
While this may help to explain a low reading readiness at a young age, it doesn’t necessarily offer an explanation for the individual differences amongst children entering primary school. One may assume this could simply be put down to less life experience in those children, as well as less encouragement on children to use their own knowledge to understand a piece of text. Researchers have suggested that the skill of using schemas is one that can be developed and taught, comprehension tasks are a large part in early years teaching, and so parents should direct this into home life early. Through questioning children on texts, they can teach them to make connections and understand what they are reading.
A limitation of this theory, however, is that the concept of schema cannot be directly observed as it is an internal process, therefore, it cannot be objectively measured. This reduces the validity and reliability of his work. Furthermore, Piaget studied his own children and the children of his colleagues in Geneva in order to deduce general principles about the intellectual development of all children. Not only was his sample very small, but it was composed solely of European children from families of high socio-economic status. Researchers have therefore questioned the generalisability and validity of his data.
After looking at both the Home Literacy Environment, and the theory of schemas as an explanation of readiness to read, I believe that there is clear integration between the social and cognitive theories. Schemas are built from our own social experiences and interactions in life, they are the building blocks of knowledge we acquire in order to make sense of the world. In relation to reading readiness, a rich breadth of literacy material and exposure will thus lead to the necessary schemas for a child to comprehend text. By increasing a child’s HLE, in turn their cognitive schemas should also increase.
Therefore, my recommendations for parents would be to immerse children in a world of literature and allow them to explore a love of reading, as well as developing their comprehensive skills by encouraging the child to engage with the text. This should help develop their ability to use schemas and teach children at an earlier age the importance of doing so. Regarding my recommendation to early years teachers, a similar approach should be taken. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that children who enter school with a lack of readiness to read may become more adverse and intimidated if too much pressure is placed upon them.
Reading should be regarded as a fun activity within the classroom and children should be left, within reason, to choose their own books and how they want to read. Children whom still do not show signs of readiness to read should not be forced to begin too soon, and instead encouraged to explore texts in different ways. For example, children who simply have no desire to learn should be encouraged to play word games or perhaps taken to the library; showing them texts in a more fun environment, rather than forced to read in a classroom when they are unable. Teachers should provide materials and questions that moderately challenges a child’s current schema, but not so challenging it is out of reach. Reading readiness is an act that manifests in a child’s early development.
This development should be properly enhanced by parents, guardians and language instructors as well so that the best should be achieved of the child. Reading is indispensable and a valuable asset to any child who desires to explore the universe and to be knowledgeable. With the appropriate reading materials, environment, and teachers who are willing to help children imbibe reading culture, good reading skills can be inculcated into children.
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