October 7, 2009

What would you like it to say?

My first grade daughter, whose class is learning how to read this year, brought home a "helpful" faq sheet for parents to help guide their child along the path to literacy.

One of the faqs asked "what should you do when your child, while reading, stops and says 'what's this word'?"

According to the faq I'm supposed to say "What would you like it to say?"

I thought to myself how fortunate my school was to be primarily educating the children of academics and professionals and, as such, able to afford to be dispensing such bad advice.  Worse still, the dispensation of this bad advice comes after a year of kindergarten in which the school squandered the opportunity to begin formal reading instruction.

It's a guideline like this that confirms the suspicion that many educators charged with the teaching of reading do not understand the nature of reading.  Despite ample evidence to the contrary, many educators continue to believe that reading is just a matter of making sense of text.  The decoding of text is just a matter of guessing a word's meaning based on contextual clues.

This is also the primary reason why I taught my children how to read well in advance of when formal reading instruction would begin in their school.

Reading these guidelines is like going to the doctor's office with the flu and the doctor exclaiming that what you need is a good bleeding to get your humors back in balance.  They do not inspire confidence in the profession.

My daughter is still learning how to read, but is reading well enough that she can tackle children's books whose text is not so carefully controlled for decodability. As a result, she now occasionally comes to a word that she cannot read and that she has not necessarily been taught how to decode.

Many of these words are in her oral vocabulary.  She knows the word.  She knows what the word means.  Sometimes she even has an idea of the type of word that fits in the sentence based on the context.  Yet she cannot decode the word.  Decoding is the impediment to making meaning of the text, not the other way around.

My fourth grade son who is a skilled decoder will also occasionally come to a word that he cannot read.  but, his problem is the opposite of my daughter's.  He often can decode the unknown word correctly, but the word is not yet in his oral vocabulary.  He doesn't know the meaning of the word yet. Sometimes he is able to infer the word's meaning from the context.  Other times not and he has to resort to the dictionary.

Inferring the meaning of words from context is what skilled readers do.  (I believe that eye tracking research bears this out,  Dick must know.)  And, I have no doubt that words can be identified by unskilled decoders based on context clues, but this is a more cognitively demanding task--one with no commensurate benefits for doing it the hard way.  Yet educators seem hell bent on teaching reading the hard way practically ensuring that more kids will struggle learning how to decode and causing them to read less and fail to acquire all the knowledge that is primarily learned by reading.

I'm not overly fond of characterizing children as customers of education, but I'll tell you as customers they are getting the short end of the stick.  Reading is not taught this way because it benefits the children, it's taught this way because that's how many educators want to teach.  Their interests are paramount, not the students'.

I gauge the seriousness of any education reform by how well the reform addresses this issue.  Often it does not which is why most educational reforms fail.


Dick Schutz said...

Right on, again, Ken.

Eye-movement studies (Keith Raynor has devoted his professional career to such) show that expert readers "read through the word" from left to right just like novice readers should be taught to do. They just do it so fast and effortlessly that it's autonomous. This occurs with all complex skills such as driving, playing a musical instrument, using computer software, and such.

Your older son is doing exactly what capable readers do. When we encounter unfamiliar text, the meaning can sometimes be gained by context. Sometimes the term can be skipped with no great loss of understanding. But if these words are key or if they constitute more than 5% of the text (rule of thumb), the text will be incomprehensible. The kid can read; it's a matter of what you call "background information" and I call "technical lexicon."

The "take home" would be looked upon favorably by the National Council of Teachers of English and by the International Reading Association. Any idea why we have a "reading problem?"

Your little girl is ahead of the curve. But many kids aren't, and very few parents know the difference. It's the conscientious kids and parents who are unintentionally mis-instructed. Down the pike, the kids are designated "learning disabled" when they've been "instructionally disabled." It's bonkers, but it's reality.

Jared Stein said...

My son's run into a little of this in his two years of elementary reading education, the most marked instance being when a teacher, in parent-teacher conference, discouraged me from teaching him to read at home (even though my Masters is in language teaching) because I encouraged sounding words out--especially the big words he hadn't encountered before. (When watching him struggle to read a long word she would jump in and tell him the word, then instruct him to go on without explanation--"He doesn't know those words," she explained to me.)

TFT said...

I've taught k, 1st and 2nd in my career. I started 10 years ago. I first teach phonics (decoding) then move on to the rest.

Yes, many teachers and reading coaches tried to get me to do the "whole language, figure it out from context" approach. I am to dense, I guess, to understand how it would work. My students sort of needed to know what the letters were--what they sound like--before they could interact with them.

In k, we used Read, write, sing and spell. Lot's of alphabet, letter, vowel and other songs. Then the district threw it out. I have used the ABC song and vowel song ever since. I use it when I have to remediate 2nd graders.

Why do we listen to Houghton- Mifflin?

ShortWoman said...

Recently I had a haircut and was talking to the stylist. She was telling me about the trouble her niece was having with sight words. *Sight words* for pity sake! Oh, how I wanted to go buy a copy of "Teach your child to read in 100 easy lessons" right then and there for her! I may still bring her a copy on my next appointment.

What is it going to take to drive a stake through the heart of bad reading instruction once and for all? It isn't like we don't know how to make kids into good readers, it's just that the educational system chooses not to do so!

RMD said...

I recently had yet another person give me the "reading is just like learning to speak .. . it just comes naturally" (the first person was my son's first grade teacher!)

I finally figured out what to say to this: "Yes, learning to read is natural . . . just like learning Morse code."

Dick Schutz said...

Good line. RMD!

Sherman Dorn said...

Aaaaargghghghghgh! I suspect it is too much to hope that this is an extremely garbled misinterpretation of, "What do you think it says?" Of course, there's a perfect Calvin and Hobbes cartoon for this situation, but I'm not going to spoil the punchline. (I'm thinking of one but suspect that there are many.) Maybe the way to point out the problem to teachers (if you can't find the relevant C&H strip) is to suggest that maybe they don't want to give their students the authority to read directions in any way they want...

Then there are the other options: Lewis Carroll, Bush "signing statements," etc.

KDeRosa said...

That's a step in the right direction, Sherman, but wouldn't get the school off the hook because it might still encourage the guessing of words. If the teacher knows that the student knows how to decode the word and that the sudent will attempt to decode the word after the instruction, then perhaps ok.

But lacking this condition, even this kind of instruction is potentially dangerous.

Dick Schutz said...

"What do you think it says?" is almost as bad as "what would you like it to say?" Both questions stem from ignorance of the history of the English language and the structure of the Alphabetic Code.

If one views reading as "extracting meaning from text" and a kid doesn't "know" a word, the logical thing is to cue the kid to guess the meaning. Working from context, sometimes kids will guess right. This confirms for the teacher and the kid that guessing is the thing to do.

It's akin to playing slot machines
but with lower payoff. But it's a tough pattern to extinguish.

LexAequitas said...

I've been using 100 Easy Lessons with my son, who's now in 1st grade. He's not a native English speaker.

It is indeed a struggle to get him to read through the word rather than guessing, and a struggle to not let him get the word "almost" right. My wife sometimes lets him do this in Japanese, where he'll "read" the word and get the wrong suffix (and it drives me nuts). When he does this with English, I cue him by pointing just under the letter he got wrong first (or the whole word, if he just invented something). Progress is slow. But it is progress.

Admittedly, some of his guesses are pretty funny.

palisadesk said...

My auto mechanic is an amazingly literate, self-educated man (dropped out of school in fourth grade in his native country, but has a passionate interest in the history of the English language). I was explaining the whole concept of children "constructing their own meaning" from text to him. He was clearly skeptical of the whole idea.

He allowed as he had a great deal of difficulty finding secondary school graduates who could apprentice in the auto shop. He thought the "constructing meaning" idea shed some light on why.

"When I have a sign that says, EXPLOSIVES. DO NOT ENTER, I most certainly do not want the employee 'constructing his own meaning', which might be something akin to DESIGNATED SMOKING AREA. C'MON IN AND PARTY."

I found this a vivid illustration of the perils of "what would you like it to say?"