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Education Worldwide

Reading Promotion Depends on Family and School


Interview with Professor R. Malatesha Joshi, Texas A&M University

Professor R. Malatesha Joshi has taught Reading/Language Arts Education, ESL, and Educational Psychology at the College of Education and Human Development of Texas A & M University since 2000. He got his PhD at the University of South Carolina in Reading Education, which is also his Primary Emphasis Area. His further research interests include Bilingualism and Biliteracy, Differential Diagnosis and Intervention of Reading and Spelling Problems, Literacy Acquisition in Different Languages, Literacy/Reading, Orthography and Dyslexia. Furthermore, Professor Joshi is an expert in international comparison of reading and writing. Amongst others, he is the editor of Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal and an editorial board member of Scientific Studies of Reading. He is also a member of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading.

In 2010, Professor Joshi spent two months in Germany as an Erasmus Mundus Visiting Scholar. At the time, he taught a class on orthography and literacy at the Linguistics Department of the University of Potsdam.

Following an invitation from the Center for Research on Individual and Adaptive Education of Children at Risk (IDeA), Professor Joshi spent one month as a Visiting Research Scholar in Frankfurt/Main in summer 2012. While he was there, Nadia Cohen, Dr. Gwendolyn Schulte and Christine Schuster from the German Institute for International Educational Research (DIPF) conducted an interview with him.

Mr. Joshi, being knowledgeable in reading promotion who has travelled many countries, how would you define reading promotion?

First of all, I believe that reading is really essential not only for individuals but also for the well-being of societies as a whole. Reading difficulties will cause all kinds of problems in later life.  Data from the U.S. have shown a link between illiteracy and certain (social, economic and health) problems. For example in states with a high ratio of illiteracy, there might also be a high number of prison cells. Findings from Mississippi and California have demonstrated a link between the reading ability of students in the 3rd and 4th grade and the number of prison cells you would need some 9 to 10 years later. That’s why the U.S. National Institutes of Health have defined Illiteracy as a public health issue. I think this might be the case worldwide – or at least in Western countries, but we would need more data to ascertain this fact.

You are a teacher and lecturer at Texas A&M University. Since you have played a leading role in so many research projects, which would you believe is particularly relevant?

Right now, we are planning a special issue on Literacy in Africa / African Languages. We have conducted some research on spelling in Zambia, and found that knowledge of first language helps in spelling English words . A computer programme called Graphogame, developed by Finnish researchers, has been implemented to helpchildren learn letters and their sounds. I am very interested in other initiatives using mobile devices in order to teach reading and would welcome any information regarding similar projects.

You have worked on the diagnosis and treatment of  reading and spelling disorders. Would you know how children with reading and spelling difficulties might be motivated to read or how an interest in reading might be kindled?

Reading promotion strongly depends on the family and the school as the immediate environments experienced by a child. Empirical research has demonstrated that the number of books found at home is a reliable indicator of children’s reading competence. Children need to be exposed to reading at the earliest possible stage in life. Of course, in the U.S. as well as in other industrialised countries, a number of programmes and initiatives have been developed to instill a motivation to read, e.g., school reading competitions, the Literacy Day or the programme DEAR - Drop Everything And Read, the Spelling Bee. To give a typical example, a class might strive to read 40 books within a certain period of time and If they succeed, they will win a “Pizza Party” so that reading is immediately rewarded.

In Texas in particular, many children enter school without sufficient English language skills as there is a high proportion of Spanish immigrants. Primary education thus involves various methods and programmes targeting tuition in English as a second language.

Generally speaking, I am strongly in favour of bilingualism. Bilingualism is also a reality encountered by most people in the world. Given that children are supported in developing their first (native) language competences, they will easily acquire a second language. As such, the fact that the children speak Spanish at home and English at school does not necessarily cause a problem, provided that the family background provides an atmosphere that is beneficial for learning to read, and the family encourages their literacy development.

You are a co-author of the handbook Becoming a Professional Reading Teacher: What to Teach, How to Teach, Why it Matters. What qualifications (or characteristics) do you think are particularly important for reading instructors?

Teaching needs to be systematic and explicit. Teachers should be dedicated to their work instead of thinking that the children will somehow learn to read anyway. Teachers should be knowledgeable regarding linguistic principles and rules. Unfortunately, our research has shown that this is often not the case and that teachers have not received proper training.

You have conducted the study Cross-language transfer of reading ability: Evidence from Taiwanese ninth-grade adolescents. Together with  Hui-Kai Chuang and L. Quentin Dixon, assessing first language reading competence effects on second language learning. Could you please illustrate some of your findings?

We found that bilingual children often possess more sophisticated literacy skills, demonstrating a more profound understanding of linguistic concepts. For example, when children were asked to indicate which of the words “hat” or “cat” was more similar to the word “cap”. Monolingual children were more likely to choose “cat”, they were looking for similarity at the surface level of sounds. Bilingual children on the other hand would opt for “hat” because a hat is similar to a cap in its meaning. Bilingual children were thus not only paying attention to the orthography of the word, but also to its meaning, demonstrating an awareness of semantic concepts at a deeper level.

In a cross-language study of learners of English, we made some interesting findings regarding the influence of the children’s first language on types of errors. We subjected Chinese and Norwegian children to a written English test. Both groups had received approximately two years of English instruction. We found that when Norwegian children came across a word they did not know, they would try and spell it the way they thought might be correct. For instance, they would spell “night” “nite” or “neight” thus making mistakes at a phonemic level. Chinese children on the other hand would write “light” or “right”, that is, they would substitute the word they did not know with a familiar one that shows a similar sound pattern. The Chinese writing system is based on an iconic correspondence between characters and their semantic meaning, hence the Chinese children transferred their linguistic concept to the English language, perceiving words as a whole rather than dissembling them into phonemes. Based on these findings, it might be important to develop different methodologies for second language instruction, customized to the linguistic concepts students experience in their first language and which they transfer to the target language.

Regarding your visit to Germany, is there any event or experience that has left a particular impression?

I was especially impressed by the Fulda PhD academy, a meeting of doctoral students who conduct their research at the DIPF. The students are so dedicated and they work very hard. And I think the DIPF is making good use of its resources.

Mr Joshi, we would like to thank you for this interview.

Source with courtesy of DIPF: Leseförderung beginnt in der Familie!



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