Saint-Didier primary school

Reading in cycle 3

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Reading... It's such a critical issue that it's hard to know where to begin. An anecdote might be a good place.

In June 2002, my final year pupils (Primary Year 5), five in total (Anne-Claire, Charlotte, Dylan, Florian and Lea) visited Saint-Thomas d'Aquin Secondary School. My pupils split into two groups, one had a handicraft session while the other explored the resource centre, where a discussion was taking place among First Year students from the Secondary School. The two groups then swapped over.

This is what happened while I was in the resource centre. The teacher asked the group which book they were reading at the moment. Every one of my pupils could mention at least one book, and talk about it knowledgeably. When the teacher asked, "Who enjoys reading?", four of my pupils put their hand up, as well as some of the students. The teacher, slightly taken aback, then asked, "Who doesn't enjoy reading?" None of the pupils raised their hand (the fifth was most probably borderline), but there was a sea of raised hands among the students.

Who doesn't like reading? Secondary school students raise their hands, to the astonishment of the primary school pupil.

The children then carried on doing what they were doing. Several of the students started doing an English exercise. The boys flicked through comics, while the girls chose books. I noticed that there was a group of girls sitting still, with their hands crossed. After five minutes, I approached one of them, and asked her quietly:

- Can I ask you something?

(Surprised) - Yes.

- Do you think you're a good student?

(In a state of panic) - I don't know... You should ask the teachers.

- I will tell you why I am asking you. Before, when the teachers asked , "Who doesn't enjoy reading?", you put both your hands up. You've been waiting while you could be reading. So, I was wondering about something, "Can someone who doesn't enjoy reading be a good student?"

(The girl, and her friends, who had been listening intently) - Of course! They're different! We're good students and we don't like reading!"


What is the point of this anecdote? 

To illustrate two points:

First, that reading is in decline among young people, even in well-off neighbourhoods. This much is obvious to anyone.

Second, the decline is not inevitable. The methods at Saint-Didier school lead to 'technically able' readers, and also impart the joy of reading.

I will not expound on the decline in reading. Instead, I will make a few comments which I consider as highly relevant:

 In France, children are under a lot of pressure to be able to read by the age of 6. At this age, only a minority have the intellectual capabilities to be able to read. The others learn how to read, parrot fashion, but do not become real readers.

 A great number of children have difficulty picking up the 'reading habit'. For them, reading has no sense. Parents reassure themselves by medicalising the problem, and as a result, some receive individual lessons in the guise of speech therapy.

 For most families, the ability to read at the age of 6 is a guarantee of future social and financial success. It is not seen as a passport to culture.

 Before and during Secondary School, many children acquire satisfactory technical ability. However, these children do not consider reading as a 'window on the world', enabling them to understand the world around them and one another. Reading is instead considered as an activity done at school and which will be useful for work; real life is elsewhere.

To me, technical ability alone is not sufficient. My goal is for children to regard reading as a pleasure and a window on the world. And for whom life and school, fun and work, are intimately associated.

This is a list of some of the different methods that, to a great extent, turn this goal into reality.

1. At the most rudimentary level of reading, the 'coding', learning occurs through spelling. Examples: the distinction between 'a' and 'u' in words such as hut and hat.

2. Crosswords require a good understanding of definitions and, here too, attention to spelling.

3. Word hunt in dictionaries.

4. Selective reading. All the children have five minutes in which to read a text. Afterwards, they have to answer five questions in a limited time.

5. One outcome of the school newspaper, which is adored by the pupils, is that the activities of writing and reading become closely intertwined. The frequency of publication (20 issues in 2002-2003) is an important factor in this respect.

6. Subscription to the newspaper 'Children's news digest', which was decided during the co-operative council. When a new issue arrives, I present the summary. Among children who want to read the newspaper, a random draw will be used to decide who will read it first. This child will give a presentation the next day on his/her favourite article.

7. The school theatre is an example of an activity that demands commitment. In terms of reading skills, the children must pay particular attention to punctuation.

8. School correspondence creates a strong association between reading and writing activities and real life. In the case of the school exchange, the traditional order of events is reversed, with reading and writing preceding real life!

9. Book presentations is an activity that is very easy to implement. It is, by nature, one that requires a high level of involvement from the children. Indeed, it would not be a trivial task for anyone! Imagine how you would feel if you had to present a book to your colleagues! It is not about providing the 'right' answer to questions. 'Passing' a book presentation is more about receiving recognition, through applause and positive feedback from the listeners. This is a far cry from classes where reputations are established on the basis of trainer brands.

10. The library has one thousand books, many of which have to be stacked up in piles due to lack of space. When I buy new stock, I try to buy a wide variety of books rather than textbooks.

11. The assessment corresponds to the above, i.e. ability to 'decode', to understand and to communicate.

The work done in cycle 3 is a natural continuation of work done in the first two cycles. Paul Psaltopoulos makes the cycle 1 pupils aware of the importance and usefulness of writing; furthermore, Paul's ability is such that the children do not feel that they are being forced to read. One day, my pupils wrote to Paul asking him if they could interview two of his pupils about the garden. In the same day, we received a response in the form of a mini-poster. Proof that the four-year-olds considered writing as a normal means of communication.

For cycle 2, Corinne Famelart has taken over Jacques Pichon in transforming the pupils into real readers. We do not subscribe to the tyranny of the '6-year' threshold. Some children, those who are ready, will be reading fluently before, while others will not be ready till later.

It's about how far you go rather than how you get there. A long-term outlook is vital. I began with an anecdote, and I'll end with another, more personal one.

My son, who is among the youngest in his year, took a long time to learn to read. He received encouragement at school as well as at home (he had a bookshelf in his bedroom), but he was not rushed. We did not force matters, and today, my son can read well and he reads for pleasure. He is in Primary Year 5, and the last book he read was George Orwell's Animal Farm.

Remi Casteres

This page has been translated from French by Andreas Theodorou.




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Last Update :05/01/05