Revisiting Learning to Read

Testing a design prototype to improve reading comprehension. London 1990

A master hand analyst, from the HandsonCompany recently took a look at my fingerprints. Her work confirmed something I already suspected, I love to observe, analyze and reflect. My passion for observation and innovation has, like my finger tips, always been with me.

This was the case in 1990 when, as a graphic design student, I spent a week at the Uxenden Manor Junior School in London School observing a class of 8 year olds. The purpose of my visit was to identify a problem and solve it using my design skills.

The problem I identified was illiteracy among a handful of the children in a class of 30. It was unclear why they had fallen behind in their reading, but what was obvious. was that there was no alternative teaching vehicle to help them catch up with their peers.

The children who struggled with reading were re-presented with the entry level “Readers” for a six year old in front of their 8 year old peers. One child tried to mask his discomfort by memorizing the “Baby Readers”. The other was disruptive during reading time so he could stand in the corner. The little girl became silent. A “dimming of the lights” had begun for these children, as they were slowly left behind.

Here was a design problem, to solve childhood illiteracy. To find a non traditional way to engage children in reading comprehension.

The three children were assigned to me for an afternoon to test out my design solution. Employing paper engineering to make two sides of folded A4 colorfully open and close like a Venetian Blind I made one for each child.

The children became engaged with the opening and closing of the paper folder and were asked to “Spot the Differences” between the images on the front and back of the folder.

Next they were asked to list the items they noticed that were “different”. If they couldn’t write the word, they could draw its image instead or find it from a list of words with drawings next to them.

Next they were asked to make up a story using the list of “Spot the Difference” words. To build their story, the children were given a paper story board with six spaces for pictures to illustrate the story and lines underneath each box to write in their story. Picture and words were provided “Fridge Magnet” style, to help them make up their story. The pictures and words could be from the reading curriculum.

My design solution tried to solve the problem of inertia, stagnation and fear  about reading. Through engagement I hoped to light desire so they might revisit words and reading in a natural way, born out of curiosity and self expression. There was no no peer pressure or need to act out.

We all had a splendid afternoon making stories together. No I didn’t solve childhood illiteracy, but it was the first time I officially did what I love to do. Watch, learn, listen, create and innovate. Something, I hope to spend the rest of my life doing.

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