How we read
For most adults who read fluently, it can be hard to remember making the jump from sounding out syllables to looking at a string of words on a page and having the meaning appear, as if by magic, in our heads. The change that has taken place is that we have learned to read via a combination of very fast whole-word recognition and prediction. We have what is known as a ‘visual lexicon’ in our heads – a huge bank of words we recognise on sight, and we know the structures of language so well that, nine times out of ten, we can see how a sentence is going to end.
Children need to read lots and lots in order to help them make this jump. It’s not a given; some people will struggle to make the jump for reasons relating to their own brain programming (e.g. dyslexia), and others will simply not read enough to fill up their memory bank and make the process automatic. Some experts believe that modern homes stuffed with electronic gadgets are actually changing our circuitry, interfering not only with the time we give to reading but also with the ways our brains cope with the processes on which good reading is dependent.
Children educated in Gaelic need to be able to build their Gaelic ‘visual lexicon’ as well as their English one. That’s more of a challenge in Gaelic because, while there’s a plethora of reading material available in English, there is a relative scarcity in Gaelic. That’s why we’ve set up ‘Cuilean Craicte’ – to get a lot of books into children’s hands in relatively short order!
Broad educational advantage
School is, in effect, children’s ‘job’, and one of the core skills they need to perform effectively in that job is good literacy. GME children’s curriculum is delivered largely in Gaelic, and the more they read in Gaelic, the better their ability to access that curriculum becomes.
Another way to think about a developing reader is to imagine that they are, instead, a developing driver. At first they have to think hard about steering, the clutch, the gears, the mirrors, signals and so on. But as they build up experience, the process becomes automatic and they can focus on the journey instead.
Many children in GME first ‘learn to drive’ in Gaelic. Let’s say they learn to drive a tractor. Later they will learn to read in English – let’s say that’s a car. For most children, the early tractor lessons give good grounding. But for many, they become better at driving the ‘car’. There are good reasons for this: their English vocabulary is probably wider; there are far more books in English; many parents can support English reading more easily, and, in fact, many will have read to their children in English from birth, meaning that these children have a ‘feel’ for driving the ‘car’ in the first place.
So how can we make sure they’re as good ‘tractor drivers’ as they are with a ‘car’? By giving them more to read – and that’s why we have set up Cuilean Craicte!
Why fiction matters
There’s a saying to the effect that a non-reader lives one life and a reader lives a thousand. Fiction offers readers an infinite range of experiences – they can travel in time or space, visit any country on earth, stand witness to the heat of battle or prowl a garden in the shape of a cat. In so doing they can learn empathy, try out big emotions in a safe space, escape from the trials of their lives or find solace that others’ experiences are the same – or worse (!) - than theirs
It’s important for Gaelic-speaking children to be able to explore with their Gaelic ‘hat’ on too. This broadens out their Gaelic world – and no matter how fluent the speaker, the world of Gaelic does tend to be more closely confined than that of English. We can’t go to the cinema to see Star Wars, Frozen, or War Horse. But we can read. By exploring the world through reading in Gaelic, children’s emotional connection with the language deepens and they develop their ability to function across the broadest possible range of thought in both their languages.
Babh uabh! Woof woof!