The first thing that strikes the visitor who enters an ordinary elementary school while a reading lesson is in progress is that the children are not reading at all, in the accepted sense of the word. They are not reading to themselves, not studying, not mastering the contents of the book, not assimilating the mental and spiritual nutriment that it may be supposed to contain. They are standing up one by one and reading aloud to their teacher.
Ah! but I have seen far worse than that. I have visited and condemned rural schools where the practice was to stand a class up—– say a class of thirty children—and make them read in unison: which meant, of course, that the front row chanted out the lesson while the back rows made inarticulate noises. I well remember one such exhibition, in a remote country school on the Cornish hills, and having my attention arrested midway by the face of a girl in the third row. She was a strikingly beautiful child, with that combination of bright auburn, almost flaming, hair with dark eyebrows, dark eyelashes, dark eyes, which of itself arrests your gaze, being so rare; and those eyes seemed to challenge me half scornfully and ask, ’Are you really taken in by all this?’ Well, I soon stopped the performance and required each child to read separately: whereupon it turned out that, in the upper standards of this school of 70 or 80 children, one only— this disdainful girl—could get through half a dozen easy sentences with credit. She read well and intelligently, being accustomed to read to herself, at home.
I daresay that this bad old method of block-reading is dead by this time.
Reading aloud and separately is excellent for several purposes. It tests capacity: it teaches correct pronunciation by practice, as well as the mastery of difficult words: it provides a good teacher with frequent opportunities of helping the child to understand what he reads.
But as his schooling proceeds he should be accustomed more and more to read to himself: for that, I repeat, is the master-key.
CHILDREN’S READING (II)
In our talk, Gentlemen, about Children’s Reading we left off upon a list, drawn up by Mr Holmes in his book ’What Is, and What Might Be,’ of the things that, apart from physical nourishment and exercise, a child instinctively desires.
(1) to talk and to listen;
(2) to act (in the dramatic sense of the word);
(3) to draw, paint and model;
(4) to dance and sing;
(5) to know the why of things;
(6) to construct things.
Let us scan through this catalogue briefly, in its order.
No. (1). To talk and to listen—Mr Holmes calls this the communicative instinct. Every child wants to talk with those about him, or at any rate with his chosen ones—his parents, brothers, sisters, nurse, governess, gardener, boot-boy (if he possess these last)—with other children, even if his dear papa is poor: to tell them what he has been doing, seeing, feeling: and to listen to what they have to tell him.