On reading and understanding, again.

I just lost the whole of a post with this title. Gah. I shall try and summarize:

[Numbers refer to questions & answers in the original post]


In answer to my question posed in the first post on this blog:

1. How, in two or three sentences max, would you define ‘reading’?

Elizabeth Nonweiler, no ‘phonics denialist’, said:

1. Written English is a code where symbols (letters) represent sounds and reading is the product of decoding these symbols and understanding the language. If you look at a word and can pronounce it (aloud or silently), then you have decoded it. If you also understand the word you have decoded in context, that is meaningful reading.

That is, for her, reading seems to be (as it is to me) an umbrella term for a matrix of activities, of which decoding is just a part.

I also asked

3. What are your staging-posts (however rule-of-thumb) in observing/assessing/facilitating the process of a child learning to read? (eg Letter recognition, understanding that letters mean sounds and letters make words and sounds make words, words make meaning, word recognition, etc….or perhaps not those at all…)

and her answer was this:

3. At first decoding and understanding of language develop separately. As children learn to decode, the two begin to come together, until children who can read easily develop their understanding through their reading. So, “rule-of thumb staging posts”: First for decoding: a) can see a letter and say a sound that the letter usually represents, b) can say sounds and blend them to pronounce words, c) know common correspondences for most of the sounds of English, including where one sound is represented by more than one letter (e.g. ‘sh’), d) can read some common words that have correspondences they have not yet been taught or are very unusual (e.g. “were”), e) know that the same sound may be represented by different letters and have learned a range of common correspondences for sounds (e.g. ‘ai’, ‘a-e’, ‘ay’), f) can read an increasing number of familiar words automatically, without consciously sounding and blending. Now for understanding language: a) learn to understand spoken language in a natural way from birth onwards b) listen to stories, poems, rhymes, facts, etc., read aloud to them, c) recognise words they have decoded as familiar words in their vocabulary, d) understand stories and other texts they read independently. The coming-together of decoding and understanding: Throughout this time, children understand words that are in their spoken language as soon as they have decoded them. As decoding becomes more automatic and subconscious, their understanding of language increases through their reading. They read texts with words and grammatical structures that are new to them. First they decode the words (silently and often with little effort) and then they work out the meaning from the context.


I think there are some really useful and important points here, and it should also be noted that using context to find meaning is acceptable in her schema, for more advanced learner readers. This also seems very fair to me.

However, there is a small step which seems to me to be missing in the process of ‘ b) can say sounds and blend them to pronounce words’. In some languages pretty mechanical sounding and blending is feasible: for instance I have a Hungarian friend who is used to using diacritics to create separately each of the 40-something sounds which the language contains – and who thinks our system of orthography is basically bonkers. Her daughter is also learning to read (in English) at the moment, and we’ve had some really interesting conversations about the issues that have come up – because in English, even apparently simple words have hidden pitfalls.

Debbie Hepplewhite addresses this issue directly, saying that there are many words which need ‘tweaking’ to get them from the blend to what she calls the ‘target word’. This seems pretty much analogous to the distinction I was trying to make between the ‘proto-word’ and the ‘real’ one.

She says that we should be ‘fearless’ in making these adjustments, but I have not yet found anywhere where she says how a reader should know what adjustments to make. If anyone has a reference I’d be really interested in seeing what she says. An example she uses here is ‘his’. The reader needs to do more than sound out h-i-s and blend: they need to tweak the sound to make ‘hiz’. She says that in good phonics technique this will happen and I’ve seen it work in practice.

But it’s issues like this which confuse me when SSP people seem to say that decoding is completely separate from understanding and/or context. If this were the case with ‘his’, how would the child know that the word wasn’t ‘hiss’? Why would a tweak be needed? How could it occur? Don’t they need context as well as lexis to know how to pronounce the word? I’d be very surprised if when a child self-corrects to the ‘hiz’ pronunciation this never involves them thinking about what word is likely in context.

Elizabeth Nonweiler says that decoding and comprehension begin to come together in the course of a child learning to read, and this also makes sense to me – but perhaps I’m just seeing the coming together as happening at a much earlier stage than others might?

Is there room in this description for what I’ve called elsewhere an ‘iterative’ process involving sound, meaning, and context? Nonweiler’s description of the techniques used by more advanced learner readers seems to fit with this idea.

Given Nonweiler’s and Hepplewhite’s descriptions of what happens during SSP reading, sometimes I even wonder if there is a real argument at all, when it gets down to what the Experts really think. There is also definitely some mileage in an ‘if it works, who cares why’ approach, too 🙂

But the problem with that is that people who do care ‘why’ may find themselves excluded, or want to exclude themselves, if the explanations or practices do not make sense to them.




2 thoughts on “On reading and understanding, again.

  1. Pingback: Taking words out of context? | Miscellaneous Witterings

  2. If a child sounds out and blends a word and the word is already in the spoken language of the child, then the meaning is automatically activated. So, if a child knows what a ‘boat’ is, and sounds out and blends the word ‘boat’, the meaning-making is automatic and the thought of a boat enters the child’s mind (or any reader, not just a child).

    If a child sounds out and blends a very common word such as ‘his’, as you have already discussed here, the vast majority of children with English speech will pretty much say ‘his’ with the correct pronunciation without giving it any thought.

    The difficulty might be when it comes to spelling words ending with the /z/ sound, however, as many words in the English language sound like /z/ at the end but are spelt with letter ‘s’. This is where a teacher or supporting adult may need to step in to help the child with the spelling. It’s also one of many reasons why I think the notion and use of Alphabetic Code Charts are extremely important – and why I make them freely available at the website http://www.alphabeticcodecharts.com . This helps teachers or parents show children from the outset that there are many ways to spell the sounds in words – and if you look at the /z/ row, you can see spelling alternatives beyond just ‘z’ and ‘zz’ – and these are needed from an early stage.

    I don’t think it’s a case that children learn to decode first and then attention is paid to meaning-making. Meaning-making is important from the outset – but I also don’t think that every word has to be understood by children ‘first’ before they are asked to sound it out and blend the sounds. That is why I say that children can gain a lot of practice of blending with cumulative banks of real words – some of which are not in their spoken vocabularies – without the need to blend nonsense words.

    Whilst various people have these debates around methods for teaching reading, and bring up all the complexities of the English alphabetic code for both reading purposes and spelling purposes, what seems to be neglected is the role of the teacher or supporting adult. Of course the ‘teacher’ needs to step in as required – be it to explain about accents, or support with blending a more difficult word (perhaps the child cannot ‘tweak’ the pronunciation because the word is not recognisable to the child or the word is not in the child’s spoken vocabulary) – or the teacher may need to demonstrate where the stress is placed in the word – whatever is required.

    SSP is not an exact science – in fact it is not even a science – the teaching is about making ‘practical’ the teaching and learning of a very difficult alphabetic code – and even within the various programmes authors will have made different choices of how to progress through those programme/s.

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