Critical English Online

Issues related to the Teaching of Reading

There are a number of issues pertaining to the teaching of reading in New Zealand, especially in the primary and intermediate school.

One of these is the tired old chestnut – phonics versus whole language – that simply refuses to go away. Another relates to the place of critical literacy and the challenge this raises to traditional definitions of reading comprehension ability.

A less public, but perhaps more central issue relates to the question: What theory (of cognition) should underpin our teaching of reading? It is arguable that any theory of reading comprehension that does not connect with a broader theory of general cognition is living on borrowed time.

Schema theory is a general theory of cognition that has been applied to explain the reading process. Schema theory implicitly underpins the Department of Education resource text Reading in Junior Classes for primary school teachers, and the Ministry of Education resource text The Learner as a Reader. It is an issue in itself that the Ministry of Education has never stated what theory of cognition underpins either these resource texts or, indeed, the national curriculum document.

Dual coding theory provides an alternative explanation of cognition. Dual coding theory provides an alternative explanation of the reading process to schema theory. Dual coding theory explains how the brain processes verbal and non-verbal information (visual mental images and other modes). This theory provides a better explanation for such findings as our ability to remember concrete language (pirouetting ballerina) more easily than abstract language (justice and compassion).

According to Alan Paivio this theory can explain the somewhat inconsistent results obtained from researchers supporting schema theory explanations. Click on dual coding research to check out the practical outcomes of this research for teachers of reading.

Given that Ministry publications are consistent with schema theory, it would seem dual coding theory raises a significant challenge to the way these documents recommend we teach reading. This can be seen most clearly in relation to the visual language strand, which describes visual language exclusively as “out there” and never as a visual mental image