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.