Imagine that you grow up on an island. Because you’re surrounded by water, swimming is a huge part of life on your island. People have jobs on boats or as life guards – but clearly you need to be able to swim to get these jobs. Without being able to swim, your employment options, your chance of success in life, are significantly damaged.
Not to mention that swimming looks fun. As a toddler, maybe you see your older siblings playing in the water, splashing and diving and laughing. Swimming looks like an activity you want to try for yourself – after all, if all the other kids are doing it, how hard can it be?
So you try learning to swim. You jump in to the water and it’s bright and blue and warm, but then maybe your head ducks under and you get water stuck in your mouth. Maybe you jump in too quickly and you struggle to get to the surface and get scared. Maybe none of those things happen, but when you try to swim – when you actually start to move your body in the water – you find it hard to keep in a straight line, or you can’t move your arms and legs in tandem, or you keep floating on to your back.
Suddenly the thing that other people made looked fun and easy is the exact opposite. It’s hard, it takes a lot of practice. Maybe that first experience made you scared of it. Maybe you’re embarrassed to try again in public in case people laugh at you. So you stop. You don’t swim unless you’re made to – unless your school makes you take swimming lessons and you can’t get out of it.
But swimming is still an essential part of life on your island. If you want to get a job you need to learn to swim. So, when you’re a teenager, you try again. You start paying attention to your swimming lessons. But your swimming teacher no longer just has to teach you to swim. You don’t just need to learn how to kick your legs and move your arms and breathe in time with doing all these things. Your teacher has to fix all the things that you’ve been carrying around in your head since that first experience swimming went wrong – the fear that you might go under or the embarrassment you feel.
Which brings me to reading. Teaching reading skills to teenagers and adults feels a lot like teaching someone who is scared of water how to swim. You have to unpack all of the psychological reasons why up until now reading hasn’t been something they’ve felt able to do. And those reasons are different for everyone – but everyone needs to be able o read in order to actively participate in most of life’s basic tasks. So developing those strategies – those very early steps that help people become better readers – is essential. And sometimes, it’s very similar to teaching swimming. When you first begin, you don’t start in the water. You start on the land.
Which brings me to the first reading teaching strategy I want to discuss – in the next blog post.