Walshe on Individualised Reading and Writing

How do make provision for the individual differences that exist in every class? This at the core of the problem every teacher faces, every day.

It is obviously a central problem that must be solved before there can be better reading/writing — if only because uniform, whole-class instruction can’t possibly cater for the needs of all pupils when, for instance, there are differences of 4-5 years across the range of ‘reading ages’ in the average class —and probably as much range of writing abilities if we only knew how to measure such abilities (which we don’t).

The ultimate individualisation of reading and writing is suggested by the early life of novelist Virginia Woolf: she never went to school but spent much of her time browsing in her father’s ample library — reading and writing as she pleased, benefiting from discussion with her parents, helped by their suggestions, and limited only by whatever were the limits of the library and her lack of contact with peers.

The main idea is: Set up a classroom which provides abundant opportunities (temptations!) to read and write, then give every child time and free choice — and progress will surely result because the human creature naturally knows how to learn and has been learning steadily from the moment of emergence from the womb. …

While ‘individualisation’ has many interpretations, the following features will be found in many programs:

  1. Most essentially, the child has free choice, or a high degree of personal choice, of reading matter and writing tasks.
  2. The child reads/writes at his or her own pace.
  3. The teacher requires that the child get on with the individualised reading/writing, regularly confers with the child regarding progress, observes and makes suggestions, is available for questions, has a clear knowledge of available resources, and keeps records of books read, writing completed, etc.
  4. The use of a wide variety of reading material, including the children’s own writing, takes precedence over whole class texts and commercial reading schemes, though such schemes may form part of the total reading resources of the classroom.
  5. While there are occasions when whole-class activities in reading and writing will take place, more often reading and writing (and associated 
activities, especially discussion) are best carried on in small groups, pairs, or
 individually. And the idea of help is promoted: pupils are helped by other pupils, as well as by the teacher, and sometimes parents are asked to help.
The teacher can only give attention to an individual or group if the 
other groups are independently active. This suggests that at any one time, an 
individual child or one group may be conferring with the teacher (or the
 teacher may be moving between groups which are carrying out directed
 activities which she judges they need) while the other groups are carrying 
out independent, probably self-chosen, activities which need little or no direction.

Why Does Individualisation Get Results?

  • Because every child is respected as a person, a decision-maker.
  • Because every child is working from ‘where he/she is at’. Because children choose their own reading/writing and so enjoy it more.
  • Because children aren’t labelled as slow, average, failures, etc.
  • Because advanced pupils aren’t drudged through work needed only
  • by others.
  • Because the teacher is freed to work mainly with those most in need.
  • Because abundant materials/opportunities are provided.
  • Because more reading/writing gets done than in whole-class teaching. …

Classroom ‘Learning Centres’ for Reading, Writing

A ‘learning centre’, a select part of the classroom set up to facilitate a special branch of learning, is most likely to be valued by the pupils if it is set up with their participation in its planning, construction and operation, particularly if there is first a discussion of the virtues of individualised learning. Here are some of the features of such a ‘centre’…

Furniture. Tables and chairs, cupboard and/or filing cabinet, book shelves, bulletin boards, wastebasket, and perhaps screens to mark the centre off distinctively from the rest of the room. If there are to be separate writing and reading ‘centres’, then a ‘writing centre’ might be more screened off than a ‘reading centre’ which would probably spill off into a free carpeted area on which pupils could at times lie with cushions while reading. A large round table can be a splendid acquisition in a ‘writing centre’.

Equipment. Both readers and writers can make good use of audio-visual equipment (on a special table, perhaps), such as tape recorder, cassette player, record player, film strip projector, earphones. An old but durable typewriter is exceptionally useful writing equipment, particularly when it becomes an incentive to polishing and rewriting work which the teacher then OKs for typing and ‘publication’ on the bulletin board. Art and craft supplies, too, can be used by both readers and writers — paints, paper, scissors, glue.

Materials. Mainly, of course, books; also magazines and newspapers. And all manner of teacher-made and pupil-made books, magazines, newspapers, charts, games and other materials. And only after all these have lent the ‘centre’ a heterogeneous, non-commercial atmosphere like that of a good personal library or study, may there be a place for commercial reading or writing schemes, laboratories, kits. A special place should be assigned to dictionaries and other reference works.

Activity Starters. Some teachers like to prepare a file (or box) of ‘activity starters’ — cards, perhaps, on which are suggested a wide range of things-to-do which require reading and/or writing. While some children are able to devise reading or writing goals and projects of their own, others like to go through the file of ‘activity starters’ and select a suggestion that appeals to them.

Walshe, R.D. 1980. Better Reading/Writing – Now! Ways to Teach the Fundamentals of Literacy. Sydney: Primary English Teaching Association of New South Wales, pp.100-104.