Ep. 13 | Muriel Endersby | Learning To Read, Reading To Learn
~ Muriel Endersby
In this episode, author and educator Muriel Endersby shares from her five decades as a literacy specialist. Literacy is a basic currency for knowledge and the gateway to human progress. Alongside education, literacy is deemed the right of a child, yet many children and adults struggle to read. Muriel describes environments and practices that open the door for expanded learning and growth, through nurturing a love and capacity for reading.
Muriel EndersbyMuriel Endersby’s work lays the foundation for children in their journey to literacy and love for reading. Her work has taken her all over the world, providing important groundwork for teaching and learning patterns during the early years of life.
Muriel is the author of the Fun Family Phonics reading program. She advocates for education in developing countries, providing children access to literacy and the English language - both necessary steps into increased opportunity.
Transcript | Ep. 13 | Muriel Endersby | Learning To Read And Reading To Learn
Rachel Cram – This is kind of a fun and special day because I’m interviewing Muriel Endersby, an author and educator and also my mother. So welcome Mom.
Muriel Endersby – Thank you.
Rachel Cram – We’re going to spend a little bit of time hearing about your life and your understanding of literacy for children. And before we start that I’m going to ask you a question we use at the beginning of a lot of our interviews. Aristotle said, “Give me a child at seven and I will show you the adult.” Is there a story or experience from your childhood that reflects the adult that you are today?
Muriel Endersby – Well I’m sure there are many experiences but I am going to choose just one. I’d always wanted to be a teacher. My mother wanted to be a teacher and wasn’t able to be a teacher. So she was very happy when all six of her daughters,
Rachel Cram – of her ten children. Wow!
Muriel Endersby – turned out to be teachers. But during the war we lived in London. And during the bombing, eventually our house was so badly bombed we had to be evacuated. It was a very traumatic experience for all of us because we all had to be separated when we came to Burton on Trent, which was where our place of evacuation was.
And I can totally understand why teachers were hassled getting so many children in their class.
Rachel Cram – So many evacuees.
Muriel Endersby – Yes. So many evacuees. And of course we were kind of the tail end of them. So I remember the day very clearly when the principal took me into the classroom that I was to go into. Opened the door and said to the teacher, “This child is coming into your class.” And the teacher shook her finger at him and said, “I thought I told you I would have no more evacuees.” And he said, “I’m sorry.” Push me in and close the door.
Rachel Cram – And how old were you?
Muriel Endersby – I was about seven. Six or seven. And they did eventually find a chair for me to sit on at the side of the room. But the strange thing to me was the only thought that went through my head was, “When I’m a teacher, I’ll never do that to any child.” And there were times later when I’d had classes of 46 kids. And you know you just love them all. Doesn’t matter what the situation is. That they’re a child.
Rachel Cram – Exactly. And I know having watched you live a lot of your life, that you not only have treated children with that kind of respect that you so wanted to experience yourself but you’ve also taught many hundreds, thousands of other teachers do the same. You’ve traveled to China, India, Africa, on the invitation to educate teachers on literacy for children but also on how to treat children with respect and dignity in their learning process. So, amazing that that very traumatic event has affected you in beautiful ways really.
So you go around the world teaching teachers about how to love and care for children. But before you did any of this world travelling you had to build yourself as a teacher. Can you tell about your first experience teaching in Canada?
Muriel Endersby – Yes it was really quite exciting. Before I left England I applied for some jobs in Canada. And I was thinking that when I got to Canada they would do an interview. But instead of that, one day I got a slip of paper that said, “Sign on the dotted line and the job’s yours.” which was a total surprise. Anyway I came to Ontario and went to this school. It was really out of the way. It was an old school in a small town and most of the children there were either First Nation children or immigrants. And I guess I got the job because there was a real teacher shortage and they did like English teachers and
Rachel Cram – Teachers with English accents.
Muriel Endersby – Well I don’t know about that but certainly I still had a very broad English accent. In fact at Christmas time the parents were chuckling because the children were coming home with a british accent. Anyway, when I started teaching, the most capable children were put into the 1-2 split class and I had all the rest. I loved the class. I thought they were delightful children and I had very few guidelines as to how to teach them.
We were using the Dick Jane and Sally series, which we used in England, which was fine. But the big shock came towards the end of the year when the principal, who is a very jolly fellow, Mr. Buckley, came into the classroom looking very glum. And he said to me, “I have a horrible thing to tell you but tomorrow the inspectors or the examiners are coming in and they’re going to test your class for literacy.” And I said, “What? I haven’t heard of this.”
And he said, “I’m sorry, I should’ve told you because all the other grade one classes have been preparing their children for this.” And I said, “Oh, thanks a lot.” But he said, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. This class always comes bottom so whatever happens is fine.”
So I thought, “Nothing I can do now. The children have all gone home. And tomorrow is the day.”
Rachel Cram – When you say, “Have come bottom.” is out like a district wide,
Muriel Endersby – A district wide
Rachel Cram – assessment
Muriel Endersby – assessment. I had no idea that they did this. So it was all brand new to me.
Rachel Cram – So they saw this straight grade one class as a class that would always be at the bottom.
Muriel Endersby – That’s how it had been in the past.
So the next day the inspectors came into the class and they gave them something to read and then to answer comprehension questions. I was in the classroom but I couldn’t do anything. I just had to watch. And I thought, “I bet my kids could properly read that.” I knew what I taught them and probably could answer those questions reasonably well but it sure would be nice if I’d had the warning. So I forgot all about it. They took the papers away and I saw nothing of it for a little while. And about three or four weeks later my principal Mr. Buckley came bounding into my classroom. He could hardly speak. His face read and he was so excited and he said, “You’ll never believe this but your class came top in the whole district. I was just shocked. I thought there must be a mistake. But I was really happy and proud of them. I thought they’d done really well. I told them so.
Rachel Cram – So what do you think made the difference? What brought a class that had typically been at the bottom, to the top of the district? What was the change?
Muriel Endersby – Well I think I came in with a different approach to teaching. The approach in Canada at that time was very much a teacher centered approach.
Rachel Cram – What does that mean?
Muriel Endersby – It meant that the teacher stood in front of the class; by the way, all of our desks were anchored to the ground so you couldn’t move them. And the teacher stood in front of the class. And the best teacher was the one where there was no sound in the classroom. Well I hadn’t been brought up with that kind of background and I would get the children up out of their seats; come and sit on the floor in the front because there was enough space, and I would keep eye contact with them and get them to talk. They did a lot of the talking because they could answer questions and and asked me questions. And this was very different from what was going on in the other classrooms. And I honestly think that this was the difference in the score results.
Rachel Cram – You referred to a teacher centered approach. So what would you call your approach?
Muriel Endersby – A child centered approach, where you’re thinking in terms of what do the children need. What is it that each individual child needs to learn and how can I help them do that?
Rachel Cram – And in general Canada has moved very much towards that approach. But that story is just such a great reflection on how important approach is in teaching children literacy.
Muriel Endersby – Definitely definitely. Yes. There’s no two ways about it. If children are engaged in any subject they’re going to do far better.
Rachel Cram – Can you tell us a little bit, why is reading important for children? Why is literacy important?
Muriel Endersby – Well reading is the basis of all academic subjects. If children read well and they enjoy it, they’re far more likely to do well in not only English but history, geography, science, even math because they can read the materials and they enjoy doing it. It’s absolutely the basis of all academic subjects. And children who read well and enjoy it will do far better in all academic subjects and not only in that but in life itself. Reading is everything that they come across. They have to be able to read.
Rachel Cram – I’ve heard the saying, “Before grade 3 you’re learning to read. After Grade 3 your reading to learn.” And I think that reflects what you’re saying.
Muriel Endersby – Yes yes. Well there’s a well-known author who puts it this way. He says, “A child’s attitude to reading is of such importance that more often than not it determines his academic fate. Moreover his experience in learning to read may decide how he feels about learning in general and even himself as an individual.” And so often, children who don’t read well, if they get behind in reading, their whole self esteem starts to fall. So our ambition is to make learning to read an exciting adventure so that kids say I love reading.
Rachel Cram – When I look at it as an adult myself, I marvel that I ever learn to read. And I’ve marveled every time one of my children have learned to read because it is so complex; putting letters together, which are so abstract for children, into words and then words into sentences. It’s incredible that our brain can do that. And I know that you have some marvelous techniques to take that abstract word, that abstract letter, and bring it to life for children. And I’ve heard you talk about a ‘top down approach’ and a ‘bottom up approach’ and that children really need both those approaches to be able to get their mind around this really complicated task. Can you talk a little bit about those two approaches?
Muriel Endersby – Yes. In the school system there’s been an emphasis on one and sometimes an emphasis on the other.
Rachel Cram – The pendulum kind of swings doesn’t it.
Muriel Endersby – It swings back and forth.
Rachel Carm – With the philosophy at that time.
Muriel Endersby – That’s right. The purist in the top down approach will say that if you just read to children enough they will pick it up.
Rachel Cram – Kind of like how we acquire language.
Muriel Endersby – Exactly. That’s what they think. But unfortunately many children don’t. And when that particular philosophy has come into the schools we end up with many children who slip through the cracks and don’t really learn to read. the top down approach is very important because the emphasis on reading to children is very important. They need lots of exposure to lovely literature. And we have so much of it and it’s free to go and get it from libraries. But they need more than that. Now the opposite is the bottom up approach, where you take the smallest element of the language, which is the phoneme, which is where phonics comes from, and put those sounds into words and words into sentences, sentences into stories and build it that way. But it can be extremely boring. So what I have done is I have made the bottom up approach, that’s a phonics approach, really fun and interesting. But I haven’t forgotten that you do need to read to children lots and lots. Probably cannot read too much. So my approach is to do both at once.
Rachel Cram – Do you find right now in North American schools, would you say both of those approaches are probably used?
Muriel Endersby – Well the interesting thing is that when they are, children do well but when there’s a big pendulum swing to saying, ‘we’re just going to do the top down approach. We’re going to forget about phonics.’ You have a whole generation who are lost. They can’t read. There’s lots of them who can’t read. So it’s very important that you have both.
Rachel Cram – What you’re describing is very compelling. We want our children to feel good about themselves. We want them to succeed in school. How do we give our children that love for reading? Are there some steps? Are there some suggestions that you have for instilling that kind of passion?
Muriel Endersby – Well if you’re passionate about reading yourself, children will develop a real love of reading just by watching the parents doing it. We’re so fortunate in Canada, there’s all kinds of literature for children. Go to the library and you have a special section for children’s books. And you just read all kinds of stories because the more a child gets to hear stories the more excited they will be about learning to read. And children can sit on the parent’s lap or be really close by them with their arms around them while they’re reading the book. Let the children see the book. There’s lots of wonderful pictures in children’s books. And often they can begin telling the stories themselves. And that builds literature for them as far as language is concerned and it’s a great start.
If you take the children to the library with you and show them the different books, you’ll find that they’ll pick out the ones they want to read or want you want you to read. I remember your son for example, he got turned on to reading when he came to Harry Potter right.
Rachel Cram – Yeah.
Muriel Endersby – So different children have different interests and to zoom in on their interest is very important and is often the key to getting off to a good reading start.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. And then there’s always those children that want the same books read again and again. I remember reading some particular Dr. Seuss books like 50 times because they just want to hear the story again and again.
Muriel Endersby – And that’s fine, that’s fine because it helps them to get the flow of literature and how books are written. Books are not quite the same as ordinary speaking and to be able to feel what literature feels like is very important for children.
Rachel Cram – I remember hearing you say once, and it just surprised me but then it made so much sense, that one of the things that children need to understand at an early stage of life is a sentence or something written on a page is the words that we’re saying written down. I remember that penny just dropping that, of course, that’s not something that you can assume; that when they see words on a page they know that’s a printed version of what we can be saying from our mouths.
Muriel Endersby – And I think this is one of the things that I always have done with children when they have done a picture for example. ‘Tell me about your picture.’ and then I’d say, “Would you like me to write that?” And it’s like, “ Really?”
Rachel Cram – That can be done?
Muriel Endersby – That can be done? So I write what they have told me and then they go home and say, “Mommy I can read! Look, this says…” and they repeat off what they’ve told me. And they start feeling, ‘I think reading is going to be okay because I think I know how it works.’
Rachel Cram – Yeah, I think that’s something you can do at home with your kids too.
Muriel Endersby – Absolutely.
Rachel Cram – And I love that, I love that question. What did you say about the picture? How do you ask the question about the picture?
Muriel Endersby – I say, “Tell me about your picture.” Don’t say, “What is it?” because most pictures that children draw are happenings. They’re not an isolated event. It’s something that’s happening. They might say something like, “The children are all playing in the park.” They are talking about the picture but it’s a continuous motion. It’s not an isolated thing that happened. And that’s the way they think. And that’s the way you should write it down.
Rachel Cram – And I think the question ‘Tell me about your picture.’ is so much better than, ‘What is it?’
Muriel Endersby – Umhum, because if you say that they almost look at you and say, “You mean you can’t see what it is?”
Rachel Cram – And often it’s just colors on the page.
Muriel Endersby – Yes.
Rachel Cram – We don’t acquire reading like we acquire language. Language, you listen to it, you hear it again and again and your brain is able to interpret that. And that’s how we learn to speak. Reading, with your top down approach, has an aspect of that. We need to hear literature again and again to be able to translate it from print into our mind. But how in our brain do we acquire the process of reading?
Muriel Endersby – Well, it’s very different from speaking because there’s just one area of the brain that deals with speech, but when it comes to reading there are three different areas of the brain. One area is where they hear the sounds, like ‘A’ says, “a” and then is another area of the brain that puts those sounds together and puts them into a word; for example, c a t, Cat, right.
So they put the word together.
Rachel Cram – So the sound goes into one area of the brain.
Muriel Endersby – Yes.
Rachel Cram – And then it has moved to the next area of the brain to be able to put those sounds together.
Muriel Endersby – and put the sounds together. And there’s a third area of the brain which is really important, where it gives meaning to what they have said. So ‘c a t’, cat, is not just an abstract word,
Rachel Cram – Or sound.
Muriel Endersby – it tells you it’s a little furry animal right. That you love. And some children, particularly children with autism, they have a problem making that link and they may be able to read but they have no comprehension and comprehending, understanding what you read, has to do with that third area of the brain.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. As a teacher that’s referred to as reading for meaning.
Muriel Endersby – Yes.
Rachel Cram – And we can assume all children can do that. Just because a child or even an adult can read words, sentences, books, doesn’t mean that they can easily or correctly activate the meaning.
Muriel Endersby – So it’s really important when you’re learning to read, constantly put those three areas of the brain together.
Rachel Cram – The sound. Then linking up the sounds together to make the word. And then associating with the actual object. Can you give an example of how you would focus on that as a teacher or as a parent? Wanting to enable those links or see if all these links are happening for a child.
Muriel Endersby – Well one of the things that we do when we’re teaching word building is we put the sounds together and then we always put it into a sentence to make sure they’ve understood what it is. So for example, you’ve got c a t and now they know those as three separate sounds but you run them together c a t spells cat.
Rachel Cram – And then you might say something like, “My cat says,”meow” and I pet him.”
Muriel Endersby – And he’s very soft. I love my cat.”
Rachel Cram – Yeah.
Muriel Endersby – So they see an object for the actual word that they have said. This is really important because we assume that children could do this and it’s not necessarily so. So there’s three steps and we constantly go back over them and make sure they’ve got them. So you say the sounds, put the sounds together, and sometimes a song will help because if you sing, “c a t spells cat,” it’s easier than saying, “c a t” and the child says,“table?” They haven’t got it. They haven’t got the sound blending together. So it’s good that…
Rachel Cram – So you put a little tune behind it.
Muriel Endersby – A little tune.
Rachel Cram – So they can get a flow to it.
Rachel Cram – When a child’s struggling to read I think a natural question for parents is, do they have a reading disability? Is there something that is hindering their approach to reading? Now sometimes it is just that they haven’t been drawn to it yet but sometimes there is a learning disability that’s taking place. How does a parent start to make assessment? What would start to raise the warning bells for you?
Muriel Endersby – Well, I think if the child is in a good school and the other children are learning well and they just seem to be really not getting it, you may need to go and ask for an assessment. And first of all of course you need to talk with their teacher because their teacher needs to know that you are interested and you’re concerned and that you would like to help.
Rachel Cram – Does that make a big difference to teachers?
Muriel Endersby – It does. It does. And I do think that parents need to know they are the number one teachers of their children. They sometimes feel,
Rachel Cram – That can feel a little overwhelming because I think parents don’t see themselves as teachers. They kind of think they’re sending their children off to school for that.
Muriel Endersby – I think it’s really important that parents understand what the children are learning. And when I’m talking about how to be a teacher, I tell them it’s really important that parents are included. Particularly at the young age, the parents are really on board when it comes to helping. And it seems like it’s something that they can do fairly easily and it is if the teacher just takes a little bit of time to explain things that they can do at home. For example, when you’re learning the sounds that the letters tell them look around the house and see if you can find something that begins with the letter of the week. I remember one little boy going all over the house and saying , “Oh, I think I’ll take my ball. What about my bat? I can’t take the bird. Can I take the bird? So he was really thinking in terms of the first sound being a ‘b’ sound.
Rachel Cram – And parents can get involved in that.
Muriel Endersby – They can. They can. And they’re practicing what they’ve learned in school and getting excited about it. And those two things are really important when it comes to learning and the parents are getting excited too. I remember one time a parent couldn’t come to school because she was teaching elsewhere and she sent a little boat to school with her child. And on the boat it said, “Baby brother’s beautiful, big, blue, boat.”
Rachel Cram – She was making it clear she was on board.
Muriel Endersby – And the child was too. So to make it exciting. Make the whole learning process exciting. And to get parents on board is so important.
Rachel Cram – You made a comment saying that, ‘Teachers respond when they see that parents are interested.’ How does that affect what happens for the child in their class?
Muriel Endersby – Well I think more than anything else it affects the child because home and school are together and they feel like, ‘we’re all in this together and it’s a fun experience.’ If a parent is not engaged it shows, but you do the best you can still as a teacher.
Rachel Cram – Still as a teacher. Right. How important is the learning to read journey?
Muriel Endersby – It is vital. I want to tell a little story. My husband and I both had to learn Latin in school. I had a horrible teacher who’d come in and say, “OK, open your books at page number three. Decline this verb.” And I thought, “Oh this is so boring.”
On the other hand my husband, who is here in Canada, had an excellent teacher for Latin. He loved it. He made it really come alive for him. He loved it so much that his first degree is in Latin. That really blows me away because I hated Latin. So the way a child learns anything will determine a great deal about how well they like it and how well they’ll do at it. We have to make learning to read an exciting adventure so that children say I love reading.
Rachel Cram – So Muriel as we draw this interview to a close, amidst all the responsibilities and opportunities we have with our children, is there a central message or key piece of advice you see as most important to consider as we lay a path towards literacy with our children?
Muriel Endersby – Well I would like to say to parents, the one thing that you can do with your child is to read books to them. There are so many books in our libraries and they’re free. Bring back a pile and read to your kids. Even once they get into reading themselves, still read to them because literacy is such an important part of our life. And if children can read well and they enjoy it they will succeed in not only academics but in so many other areas too.
Rachel Cram – Well thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and knowledge with us today. I enjoyed this.
Muriel Endersby – Well thank you very much too. I always love working with you.
Rachel Cram – Thank you.
Muriel Endersby – And really over something I’m so passionate about. Learning to read.
Rachel Cram – Well you’ve instilled it in me, so thank you.