Volume IV - 1997

Imagination in the Teaching of Reading: A Descriptive Analysis
   by  Ramonita A. Santiago

         Dr. Ramonita Adorno de Santiago is a Bilingual Reading Specialist at Eugenio Maria de Hostos Micro-Society School in Yonkers, New York. She is one of the authors of the McMillan Spanish Literature Reading Series Cuentamundos. Before joining the Yonkers's School District she worked for Arlington Public Schools in Virginia as an ESL Specialist. Dr. Santiago is an Adjunct Professor at Lehman College in New York..

Editors' Note: In the following article, Dr. Santiago makes the valuable contribution of a close and sensitive observation of children who are sharing the excitement of learning to read in their native language_in this case, Spanish. In doing this, she assumes something of an ethnographic stance in her capacity of reading teacher. Again and again, her understated comments make the reader pause and reflect. For example, "We fail our students by saturating them with what we think they should know at a certain age instead of finding out where they are and continuing from there." Creativity and imagination are in the forefront of conditions she describes as necessary.


         Often, teachers are put in a position where they become a hindrance to the learning process by prescribing too closely what children should learn and thereby failing to create the necessary conditions for learning. The experiences, the drive and the spark that children bring to school are often disregarded. Their creativity is ignored to the point that many of them withdraw, and the learning process is negatively affected.

         Reading is one of the school activities that children should enjoy the most. Yet to some, it is perceived as an impossible task. Reading is the core of their education, but many view it as a tedious exercise that stops in school. Children might well be encouraged to use the knowledge they have already acquired in order to learn new concepts. We should also learn to appreciate more the fact that children are imaginative, and_when the proper conditions are provided_they respond with enthusiasm and interest.

         In this article, I am concerned with children who were learning to read in Spanish, their native language. I used an intuitive, highly flexible approach where children were encouraged to take risks, as opposed to others characterized by rigid stages in a sequence that seems to facilitate the process minimally.

Reading and Academic Success

         When children enter school, they are expected to take responsibility for their own behavior. After all, they are old enough to take care of their body functions and social behavior, which came about as a result of encouragement, practice, cajoling and perhaps imitation. Schools continue supporting those accomplishments and expanding in other areas. One of the most basic responsibilities of schools, however, remains academic success. In turn, one of the most important contributions to academic success is learning to read.

         Reading is not an isolated process and children come to school with different levels of literacy proficiency for reading instruction. Goodman (1986) has said that "literacy learning is a process that has its roots in the home, beginning in infancy with the child's exposure to oral and written language" (p. 86). Some children enter school aware of print: these seem to make sense of reading with ease. It appears that others, who have had a sharply limited exposure to print, have significantly different needs. Based on my experience and on the literature about the reading process, this second group can most definitely learn to read. But often, the techniques used by the teacher must be in close accord with the students' own interests. This can magically change a classroom from a dull and stifling place to one of spontaneous and wonderful life.

         For the past three years I have been teaching reading to mixed groups of children in the first to the third grades. I was assigned the beginners, who had little experience with print. The school had implemented a new reading program which was heavy on phonics in the first three grades. That is, the emphasis was placed on sound/letter relationship. For my students, the sound/letter relationship was important, but so were the other aspects of the challenge to read.

Children Need to See a Purpose in Reading

         First of all, this group of children needed to see a purpose in reading. This is important because reading usually conveys a message that is interpreted according to one's experience. Instead of emphasizing sounds in isolation, I decided to help my students make the connection between purpose and process by continuing to read aloud to them every day. This practice was, in fact, suggested by the reading program, but only for the Kindergarten and Pre- Kindergarten levels. Also, I developed my lessons from what I considered inherently interesting stories, rather than from the basal series that was called for by the reading program. The series was interested in isolating words from those stories to practice individual sounds. Our interests were more global.

         After the initial class openings_greetings, date, call of the roll_the children in my class were invited to listen to a story. There were specific rules to be followed during that time. Students were not allowed to leave the room, and they could not interrupt the teacher while she was reading. Any emergency would be taken care of before the story started. During the first story I read, the children were at their desks listening attentively. After I finished, the children said that they wanted to sit on the floor to hear the next stories. Also, they all wanted to be able to see the pictures that accompanied the text. I obliged and decided to keep a journal on reading behaviors I observed during relevant activities in the classroom. The comments the children made, and their interactions before and during reading were noted. The activities of the students with the stories were also recorded as were other observations that I considered important for the development of reading over a one-year period. Those observations were analyzed and categorized to explain the processes that children develop when learning to read. This paper describes some of those processes when children are learning to read in their native language, Spanish.

Organization According to Affective, Cognitive and Metacognitive Skills

         The many observations I made could be grouped into several different categories. To organize these observations, I decided to adapt some of the terms utilized by O'Malley and Chamot (1990) in their research on learning strategies. They had identified three types of skills: affective, cognitive and metacognitive. The affective skills encompass motivation, positive encouragement, and interactions. The cognitive skills include the mental process displayed by the children when absorbing a story read to them or being read by them. The metacognitive skills include those behaviors displayed by the children when talking about their awareness of learning to read. It is my belief that for children to process written language, they need to develop affective skills first. That is, they need to know what the function of the symbols (words) is in order to process them cognitively and analyze them metacognitively. These three skills are closely interrelated.

Affective Skills

         In the affective domain, the children were able to take care of their own discipline as they listened to stories. If a child was distracted and tried to engage others in a conversation, he was told by a classmate to pay attention. When children were engaged in a story they did not allow anyone to interfere with or distract them. It was evident that children were inner motivated. At the beginning of the school year, students were expected to listen to the stories the teacher read. Later on, children were given the choice of listening to stories or doing whatever they wanted as long as they were not interrupting the story the teacher was reading. On a few occasions, one or two decided to work on their own. The reasons reported by the kids who left the group, usually the third graders, were that the stories were "too baby" for them. The comment that the story was too long was often reported by the first graders who had chosen another activity.

         In the reading group, the children developed a kind of bonding and trust that helped them in the possibly more natural development of skills relevant to the acquisition of reading. Reading became an extension of the oral language, which was manipulated at different meaningful levels. The desire to gain meaning from the printed page was evident. Expressions such as "Can you read this book again?" or the creation of stories when a child was pretending to read indicated that reading was an activity that they enjoyed. Also I was afforded the opportunity to introduce critical skills in a very smooth way in contextual situations. According to Vygotsky, Montessori has suggested that reading and writing are activities that should be "cultivated" rather than "imposed" (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 118). When children heard pattern books, they joyfully joined the teacher in the patterned or repetitive parts and they read on their own with confidence and knowledge of the story lines. All children in the group developed a love for books and for finding out what was written in them. Specifically, the affective domain was stimulated by trust, bonding, choices, and respect for those choices. The motivation was part of the inner personal interaction between the student and the meaningful opportunities to read and write. Some of the writing activities that children engaged in included original stories from books read to them and creative stories about pictures they drew. They made story maps using vocabulary from the stories, or they wrote questions to the characters of a story.

         The writing activities were done in small groups of three or four students, in which each child would contribute a sentence or a picture--or would discuss what he or she wanted to write. Usually the teacher provided pictures for discussion to guide them in the writing, but the stories originated with the students, without the teacher's input. Peer communication was very important because it clarified ideas. The students were able to plan strategies that would help them to develop a story. For example, on one occasion, during the Christmas season, I suggested to the students that they make a list of things they wanted for Christmas. One wrote "Yo kiro nu jubt." He was so proud of his accomplishment that he shared with the whole class how to write the word "juguete" (toy). I learned from this child that his notion of the word "juguete" was "jubete," a version which is very common among young Spanish-speaking children. I was confident that once this child learned to pronounce "juguete" correctly, he would not have any problem attaching the conventional spelling to the word. Getting to know the students is very important. Once the teacher knows their strengths, it is easy to build on them to stimulate the learning process.

Cognitive Skills

         After children were motivated and after they had developed a love for books, it was interesting to observe the many interactions in which they were engaged. When a story was read, they predicted or guessed what was going to happen in the story. As Goodman and Miles (1970) and Smith (1988) have indicated, guessing is key to the learning process. The prior knowledge of the students was activated and they were able to connect their experiences and reach conclusions. They attended to the pictures and the text and reflected upon the skills that they were acquiring through statements such as "I know what it says there." They were becoming familiar with letters and sounds in a natural and nurtured fashion. Reading became a fun discovery activity. Memorizing a book or part of it helped not only their cognitive skills but also their affective skills, since memorization gave them the power to read and feel like independent readers. It also helped them discover the code--what symbols represent which sounds. At one point, when one of the children was attempting to read "Tito tira la bola," he read instead "Tito tira la dola." His reading partner corrected him by saying, "Here it doesn't say dola: it's 'bola'." This same student had difficulty himself distinguishing the "b" from the "d" but in context, he was always able to distinguish one from the other. In other words, the context was more important than the form in helping to clarify distinctions.

A Word on the Word "Natural"

         The approach I used in order to develop reading appeared to be more natural. That word,"natural," often makes researchers nervous_and rightfully so because it is used without definition. I use "natural" in the sense that many aspects of this approach did arise more in the reactions of the children themselves and less in the preconceptions of theorists which seem at times artificial and manufactured. Reading activities in some of the other approaches seemed to be forced upon the students; while in a more natural approach, the activities were part and parcel of the process. For example, in many instances, the children were the ones who requested or suggested activities that went beyond the story read. "Can we dramatize the story?" "Can you write words that start with that letter?" "Where is the word 'bicycle'?" Children shared different versions of the stories read and in many instances, some changed the storyline in order to make it more attuned to their experiences.

         By March, I felt that the students were taking care of their own learning and that they didn't have to rely on the teacher as much as they did at the beginning of the school year. They were reading with partners and helping each other, confirming Rosemblat's (1978) assertion that "partner reading helps to bridge the gap between relying on the teacher too much and reading more independently" (p. 194). Students developed strategies which were teacher- initiated, such as asking "why" questions. They developed vocabulary at the receptive level and confirmed the words they knew at the productive level. In stories that included terms from other Spanish-speaking countries, students were able to negotiate meaning. When reading on their own, they showed that some of their miscues were semantically correct based on the vocabulary knowledge they had acquired. Tito tira la "bola" was read for Tito tira la "pelota" since "bola" and "pelota" are synonyms. At the cognitive level, the students were able to predict, analyze, make connections between text and real-life situations, talk about vocabulary, and evaluate stories. They were also able to focus on utterances and labels from the books.

Metacognitive Skills

         Conscious manipulation of written language may occur at the emergent reading level. Students develop strategies and are able to talk about how they learned them and how they used them. Emergent reading strategies get closer to a model of reading as flexible strategic orchestration of visual and non-visual information (Clay, 1979; Goodman and Miles, 1970; Smith, 1988). Once a child is able to recognize how he learned a skill, he wants to share it with less able students. During pair reading, two students were reading the book Los Cochinos by Robert Munsch. They had no problem identifying the title, but when they were deep into the story, one read "cerdos" instead of "cochinos." The other child pointed out the error and explained how he figured out it was "cochino" and not "cerdo." "Cochino tiene ch en el medio y cerdo no tiene ch." For that child, identifying distinctive features in the word made him identify and/or remember it.

         In another instance, when someone suggested to a student named Luis that he copy a word from the board, Luis--who was a good decoder--informed his classmates that he wouldn't copy from his teacher but from his head. The children had been asked to write a story about their favorite animal, and the names of a few animals were written on the board, but Luis decided to take a risk and write the word on his own. He said that when he was writing the word, he was saying it part by part until he finished it. Apparently, for some, the strategy that they were using was still relying on the teacher for accuracy. Luis, however, was using emergent strategies for writing which developed from his ability to recognize words independently. Luis was operating at the zone of proximal development, which Vygotsky (1978) defines as "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving, and the potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers" (p. 86). It was characteristic of this group of children to share their metacognitive skills with others. The comment made by Luis was indicative of his reading development stage. He was about to start on his own and try out his mental capacity at the risk of not being accurate.

Reading Aloud Helps Other Skills Emerge

         The experiences described above have shown me that any reading program can be adapted to meet the needs of the students. By incorporating the reading-aloud component to my reading group consistently, I helped the other skills to emerge in a natural and meaningful way. I did not need to dwell on tedious phonic practices because when these practices were needed, either the children initiated them, or the teacher initiated them when they were considered pertinent to the lesson. Some of the techniques I used were recommended by other reading programs, but only at the Kindergarten level. In some programs, the content of the reading itself is considered relatively unimportant. On the other hand, I think that it is critical to arouse very deeply the interests and excitement of the students. With some of the prescribed reading texts, this is difficult if not impossible.

         Often, teachers are put in a position where they become a hindrance to the natural learning process by prescribing what the children should learn and not creating the necessary conditions for learning. Learning to read and learning to speak are parallel processes. Parents do not have a curriculum to teach their children to speak: children acquire language in meaningful situations. Listening to stories and talking about them expanded their linguistic experiences which provided a good model for writing. It is important for children to interact during the reading activity. Children learn from other children if the teacher has created the right environment. Vygotsky (1978) asserts that "what children can do with the assistance of others might be in some sense even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone" (p. 85). Children are creative and always find an interesting way to deal with stories read: "Can we make a picture?" "Can we dramatize it?" "Can I take the book home to read it to Mami?"

         The learning of the alphabet may assist children in reading, but children who haven't learned the alphabet prior to first grade can learn it in the context of the reading lesson by identifying individual letters while reading or after reading. Once children realize the importance of the letters in reading and writing, they ask questions or use whatever tools are at their disposal to figure it out. Using their own names and the names of the classmates was an excellent tool to practice the letters without relying on the memorization of the alphabet.

Children Take Charge of Their Own Learning

         I became convinced that the emphasis that is often placed on the sounds of the letters is largely irrelevant. Some children knew the alphabet; however, they were unable to put the pieces together. Other children were able to read and didn't know the names of the letters. In an academic environment, children learn from meaningful teacher-student or student-student interactions. Children should be encouraged to take charge of their learning environment and their own learning, and not let anyone interfere. Their discipline is inner-directed when they are engaged and motivated to achieve a goal. Once children become independent in an activity, they want to share their expertise and their classmates are eager to listen. Through many reading activities, I have found that children not only learn to discover the code and use it independently, but that they also share, encourage, support and trust the teacher and other children. There are different stages in the reading and writing process. The stage that the child has already reached is more important than the stage where he should be according to age and grade. We fail our students by saturating them with what we think they should know at a certain age instead of finding out where they are and what they know, and continuing from there.

         Through my daily observations, I was able to get to know my students and tap on their strengths by stimulating their curiosity and their interest in becoming independent learners. I was also able to recognize the interplay of the affective, cognitive and metacognitive domain of these children who were developing the reading process. The role of the imagination in all of these processes is very important and should not be underestimated.


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