On ‘reading’ and ‘not understanding’

When people talk about the relationship between phonics teaching and the development of a child’s comprehension, a central concern often seems to be that phonics ‘first, fast, and only’ precludes any involvement of meaning. The experts seem to differ in the way that they talk about the relationship between decoding and comprehension, but it is clear that they really don’t want children to be ‘barking at print’.

I’ve asked elsewhere whether the use of SSP brings with it a need for new strategies for comprehension; I still wonder whether the speed at which children are able to get the sound of each word in SSP means that comprehension support strategies might need to be introduced at a different (and earlier) stage from previously.  If the introduction of SSP is not currently accompanied by equally explicitly new strategies to support the development of comprehension, perhaps it should be.

Another issue which I think needs clarifying in relation to this debate is what the concept of ‘reading without understanding’ actually means, both in a colloquial and a specialist context. With reference to phonics teaching the use of the phrase generally implies sounding and blending without understanding the words at all: to me, and I think to most people, this does not constitute ‘reading’ but ‘decoding’. Since two people who are involved in shaping big SSP schemes have separately said that this is not what ‘reading’ means to them, if this is happening I think they, and practitioners, need to think carefully about why. I’ve written previously about whether decoding can happen really effectively without comprehension and context (and said that I don’t see it can, given the oddities of English orthography), but the point here is the basic idea that words might be sounded out without a child recognizing the word at all, and I doubt anybody wants that.

However, I think there has been some confusion between this issue, which seems particular to learner readers using a synthetic phonics method, and other instances when ‘reading’ might occur ‘without understanding’.

I would define reading very generally as the extraction of information from something (writing, a painting, a face). In the current specific context, to me it means extracting symbolic information, translating those symbols into language, and extracting information from that piece of language.

Philosophers would do it better, but I’m not one, so this will have to do.

In each possible scenario, it seems to me that in fact ‘reading without understanding’ really means that an attempt to read has failed on some level – that is, perhaps reading ‘without understanding’ is not quite ‘reading’ at all.

To break down the stages at which successful reading might fail to take place, the possibilities seem to me to be:

1. Failure to recognize that a text is a text (as a baby does not know what the squiggles on a page are, but also as an archaeologist might come across marks on an artefact and fail to see that there is a message encoded in those marks).

2. Recognition that there is a symbolic code, but failure to know or understand the correspondence between the symbols and the particular sounds they represent (this is what most people in our very literate society would recognize as being ‘unable to read’).

3. Knowledge of a particular symbolic code which represents the sounds of a language, but failure to ‘hear’ the sounds represented by the symbols as the words they become in combination (as when a child can sound and even blend c-a-t but not hear the correspondence to the word ‘cat’).

3. The ability to blend into words and understand each word individually, but a failure to understand the meaning created when those words are combined (as when a learner reader is focussing so hard on sounding and blending that they don’t see the bigger picture of the word in context, but also in the case of an adult attempting to read a text which uses enough unfamiliar vocabulary that the meaning is lost).

4. The ability to read individual phrases, passages, or a whole text but not understand the author’s message or its implications. This, of course, is a pretty grey area, since who can say what response to a text is entirely objectively right or wrong?

In all of those instances, reading as the ability to extract information has failed. It does not matter whether the person in question is reading aloud or silently, and it is rare to come across instances where the distinction between the two is considered to matter. It is possible, for instance, so read c-a-t silently and fail to reach ‘cat’. It is the failure to understand the symbolic correspondence between the phonemes and the word which is the problem for that reader.

Sounding out words without understanding has sometimes been a problem, as in the accusation by early-modern religious reformers that catholic priests ‘mumbled’ Latin prayers without understanding them: the remedy for this involved reading the text itself with understanding (hence the push for translation into English and Edward VI’s sponsoring of the opening of grammar schools), but while reading aloud was common and encouraged, it was not essential to create meaning any more than it was the reading aloud which caused it to be lost – the fault was in lack of knowledge, either in the case of the priests or the listeners. It should also be remembered that what was being read without meaning here was not English but Latin, an language whose orthography lends itself to a more mechanical sounding out. In some cases it seems that the clergy were themselves illiterate and were not even using text as a prompt, but were mumbling prayers learned by rote from memory.

It’s interesting that ‘mumbling’, not ‘reading’ was the common term for this problem; the other one was ‘parroting’, used also of actors and pseudo-intellectuals who are accused of speaking or copying without fully understanding the meaning of what they are saying. In each of these cases the connotations are strongly negative, and a failure is explicit or implied.

An interesting further possibility, difficult to achieve with English orthography, but perhaps quite common in the historic use of Latin as the European lingua franca (as it were) is if someone were to sound out text and a listener were to extract the information from it. In the case of Latin read by a priest (or, for instance, a royal herald reading a proclamation or a diplomatic messenger) who did not know the language, the speaker might function as an extension of the text itself – the act of reading is therefore only completed by a listener who can understand the language and extract the information. The herald’s role is similar to that of a computer today, which we might say can ‘read’ data, while remaining aware that the complete act of extracting meaningful information must always involve the human at the end of the chain. In the messenger’s case, the lack of comprehension (the inability to really read the text) might actually be an advantage in keeping diplomatic secrets safe.

NB The philosophy of information is a rabbit hole I don’t want to fall down in this post, but I’m  basing my definition of information on the idea that it only becomes information when it is taken in by a conscious mind: until then, it is information only in potential. Some would disagree, but there you go.

So I would suggest that when we say, colloquially, that someone ‘read’ something but ‘did not understand it’, what we mean in practice is that the person in question is failing in their attempt to read, and generally in the sense of 3 or 4 above.

It’s worth making these distinctions, I think, because in the case of learner readers comprehension can fail at any of these stages, and recognizing where that failure to read the text has occurred can help with the selection of strategies to remedy it.





8 thoughts on “On ‘reading’ and ‘not understanding’

  1. Your examples seem to make a jump from evidence of “failure to understand” to “failure to read” that assumes the very point that you are arguing for (i.e. reading always requires understanding). If you don’t make that assumption then you can easily find examples of people generally being absolutely happy with the concept that you can read something but fail to understand it.

    • Then their definition of reading is different from mine. I’m interested in finding solutions to these problems, and have found a definition which, for me, helps to unpick what the issues are. Others are free to use their own definitions if they find those more helpful.

      • Does your definition serve any purpose other than to try to make it more plausible that comprehension strategies should be squeezed into the teaching of early reading?

      • It can serve any purpose that my few readers wish. You do not have to read what I write, if you do not consider it to be worthwhile.

  2. I think we simply use the word ‘reading’ in different ways. One meaning involves understanding; one involves pronouncing the words correctly and does not assume understanding. We might say, “I have read that article but haven’t a clue what it was on about”. Very often this use of ‘reading’ is coupled with the use of ‘but’.

    In education, which do we need to pursue?

    In education it is probably wise to distinguish the two meanings, perhaps by calling the second, ‘decoding’, which is fairly well-accepted as a term, although the confusion is compounded in English where, in order to decode, you might need to also understand. More and more, it seems, decoding and comprehension have to be conceived as interacting if we are not going to get embroiled in contradictions.

  3. Your post demonstrates why the Simple View of Reading diagram/model is so very helpful. It highlights that there are two main processes required to be a reader in the full sense – 1) able to lift the words off the page technically and 2) being able to understand those words at the level of spoken language. This is why Sir Jim Rose recommended the Simple View of Reading in his independent national review back in 2006: http://www.phonicsinternational.com/The_Simple_View_of_Reading_model.pdf

    You cannot be a ‘reader’ if you cannot lift the words off the page. You cannot be a ‘reader’ if you can lift the words off the page, but don’t understand them.

  4. But the separation of comprehension from decoding is not an adequate model for the English language, in which comprehension is needed to decode strings of letters into words. It is also not completely accurate to equate listening comprehension with comprehension of written material, which operates in a different mode from the most common types of spoken language which children will be familiar with. Additionally, those who claim that decoding can be achieved through phonics alone are misinterpreting what was originally meant by ‘decoding’ within the SVR, and use the SVR model in an unintended way as a justification for SSP.

  5. Debbie has written another comment here https://miscellaneouswitterings.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/on-reading-and-understanding-again/comment-page-1/#comment-90 which is very interesting in relation to how she sees sound and meaning relating to one another. There seems to be room there for what I’ve called an ‘iterative’ process – although I wonder if that’s too reductionist a way (on my part) of looking at something which is really more of a complex reciprocal relationship.

    It seems from other things that you have said that you have worked in situations where this reciprocal relationship has been broken. Others have also shared experiences which seem to suggest this, too. I think it’s worth trying to get at how this has happened.

    The SVR diagram linked to above creates a very schematized view of something basically organic, social, and personal. Obviously it’s necessary to make distinctions, create artificial categories, in order to analyse anything: but if an analytical scheme is treated as a map of what is ‘really there’, then, once again, we’re in tail-wagging-dog territory, which obviously it would be good to avoid.

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