July 7, 2009

When is a decoding error not an error?

I recently came across the Critical Reading Inventory, a balanced literacy diagnostic, which purports to assess reading ability.

In case you were still under the misapprehension that balanced literacy was a state-of-the-art blend of the best of code-based reading instruction and the best of whole language theory, the Critical Reading Inventory should help disabuse you of that notion.

The problem with balanced literacy is that even though it typically includes phonics-like activities, it is not based on alphabetic code-based reading instruction. The dirty little secret behind balanced literacy is that for all the lip-service that's paid to phonics, in balanced literacy the decoding of text using the alphabetic code can be replaced with the guessing of word identity based on non-phonological information. In balanced literacy, decoding errors can be ignored if the reader guesses a word that means about the same thing as the word that the reader is unable to properly decode. That doesn't sound very balanced to me. Doesn't sound like decoding either.

The Critical Reading Inventory helpfully makes public their scoring assistant website in which teachers learn the black art of miscue analysis (i.e., ignoring decoding errors). Two case studies are provided laying out all the gory details. (Beware this is not for the faint of heart.) Let's take a look at a scoring sheet from the second case study in which "John," a fifth grader, struggles to decode a third grade text.

(Click on the graphic to see a full sized version.)

As you can see, John has made numerous (over 20) decoding errors half of which have been ignored because of the miscue analysis. All the errors with a plus sign (+) in the margin have been ignored because John's errors didn't affect the meaning of the text.

This is how you make it seem like a student has learned how to read when he really hasn't yet. But doesn't it all look so scientific and professional. We have "case studies" which sounds like science. And science is good. right? And we have fancy jargon like "miscue analysis" which makes it seem so professional like these educators really know what they're doing. You can trust us with your child's education.

And, that's just the decoding part of the test, wait until we get to the comprehension part.


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Catherine Johnson said...

Funny. You're talking about phonics-like activities & over at ktm we've just put up a post about reading-like behavior.

Catherine Johnson said...

So "miscue" means mistake, right?

Why is it called "miscue"?

Is the idea that the student used the wrong 'cue' in the book (or misused the right cue)?

Catherine Johnson said...

Check out this conclusion:

"John’s comprehension at his current fifth grade level is excellent when he is relieved of the task of
recognizing words."

palisadesk said...

So "miscue" means mistake, right?

Why is it called "miscue"?

From the point of view of those who developed and subscribe to the construct of "miscue analysis" a "miscue" is not a mistake. The reader is "constructing meaning" so it is not an error. The hypothesis goes on to say that most proficient readers make numerous "miscues" but these do not affect meaning.

However, research into "proficient readers" does not support this theory. The modal number of "miscues" generated by college students reading college-level text was zero. Even elementary students who are proficient readers make very few errors, whether they would count as "miscues" or not. 100% correct reading with good comprehension is commonplace among the best readers in any year group.

The theory is that these are "miscues" because the reader is attending to the wrong "cueing system."

Here's a little gem from Ken and Yetta Goodman:

Early in our miscue research, we concluded that a story is easier to read than a page, a page easier to read than a paragraph, a paragraph easier than a sentence, a sentence easier than a word, and a word easier than a letter. Our research continues to support this conclusion and we believe it to be true.

Parallel universe, anyone?

Elaine McEwan has an outstanding deconstruction of miscue analysis and the "Three Cueing Systems" in her book, Teach Them ALL to Read: Catching the Kids WHo Fall Through the Cracks

Catherine Johnson said...

palisadesk - THANK YOU!

Unknown said...


How does this relate to the idea of teaching kids to read by stressing "signal words"?

So "reading" is getting the gist and the longer the text, the more likely a student will grasp some aspect of it?

The McEwan book looks great.