World Book Day – helping all the children

 

Sir, – World Book Day 2021 will be celebrated this Thursday with an important mission to encourage all children to be “readers, book owners and book borrowers”.

The World Book Day website cites a key finding by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development that reading for pleasure is the single biggest indicator of a child’s future success, more than family circumstances, parents’ educational backgrounds or income.

On Thursday, parents, grandparents, educators, carers will all be encouraged and inspired to spend time reading with a child, selecting a favourite book, discussing the book’s characters, answering questions, learning new words, recreating scenes form the story, and ultimately learning through fun and engagement.

Reading is a pivotal skill during a child’s development. It exposes children to new experiences and a multitude of learning opportunities.

Reading can be considered a vital springboard for a child to transition to independent learning and learning for leisure.

Early reading abilities include print awareness, oral language skills and recognition of print conventions that provide a foundation for the core skills that help children develop the ability to read words.

Individual strands of ability including sight reading, decoding, analogy to known words, prediction from context, fluent reading and understanding the intended meaning of the text, which all emerge to allow a young reader to flourish.

Unfortunately, flourishing young readers are not representative of some cohorts of Irish children. The ambition of World Book Day to encourage all children remains an unfulfilled aspiration. Some children are deemed “out of reach” and are largely excluded from reading.

It has been shown, for example, that autistic children between the ages of three to 17 years from an Irish sample demonstrated significantly impaired reading skills across a range of reading abilities.

For some autistic children, reading instruction is not provided. Some children are not taught to read, based upon the premise that foundational reading skills are absent and that developmental delays in language, cognition and social skills preclude the autistic child from emergent literacy instruction.

Additional factors cited are that over 30 per cent of autistic people also have an intellectual disability and up to 40 per cent are non-verbal, impacting their ability to acquire early reading and core skills involved in becoming a competent reader.

As a result, many autistic children finish primary school with severely impaired reading performances, an inability to partake in standardised reading assessments and a direct knock-on effect to all other areas of learning and well-being that depend so heavily on the ability to read.

Given the knowledge that currently exists in relation to the importance of ongoing exposure to text within books, corresponding reading activities and the abilities described above that flow from these pursuits, why is it that so many young people in our society are not highlighted as needing specialist educational interventions that have been robustly demonstrated to directly address this issue?

Autistic children and those with intellectual disability can learn to read with effective instructional design and individualised educational strategies, combined with a willingness and motivation from a person driven to teach.

Indeed, recent research has shown how well autistic children can learn a combination of reading components, including phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and reading comprehension, all necessary skills to become a flourishing reader.

When effective design and teaching strategies are incorporated, sizable growth can be seen in measures of many reading outcomes.

Yet, the uptake of such educational strategies for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities is slow or absent in our society. Why?

It is likely that a constellation of factors is at play.

Does the answer partially lie in how expectations are laid out for children in this diagnostic category from a young age? How parents may be conditioned to believe a focus on everyday self-help skills is more important than literacy, for example? On this point what could be considered more of a “life skill” than literacy?

Educators may miss out on up-to-date research demonstrating advancements in instructional design for reading.

On Thursday, some children will not be actively engaging in reading books because they may be perceived to not have interest or motivation to listen, the ability to verbally say or read words, answer questions, understand meaning and share the experience, and the motivation to learn, the most basic human instinct.

On Thursday the participation of all children, especially those with developmental and intellectual disabilities, in World Book Day is realisable.

Tailored resources to accompany the materials and ideas provided through the World Book Day Charity website can be designed and utilised.

Individual communication systems such as sign, pictures, speaking devices, among others, should be respected as a form of shared reading and responding for any child with a developmental disability on World Book Day.

All people in children’s lives should be encouraged and enabled to explore and determine the myriad design and instructional approaches to achieve effective outcomes in reading skills.

Most importantly, there is a pressing need for active discussion and scrutiny of this issue for urgent focus, to ensure that all children can read for pleasure and solidify their future potential and allow books to open worlds of opportunity for greater possibilities. – Yours, etc,

Dr OLIVE

HEALY,

Associate Professor,

School of Psychology,

Trinity College Dublin,

Dublin 2.