This warm Sunday evening I have mostly been driving a SSP advocate to distraction in my attempt to clarify what role context might play in reading via a SSP method.
I have had emphatic assurances that
- Once a word has been sounded and blended, there is no problem, in her view, with using the surrounding context to disambiguate homographs.
- Reading back over the same sentence to get context for a word that a child is struggling to ‘hear’ as a real word rather than just a blend of sounds, is also absolutely fine.
- Context is also fine for the sort of disambiguation that I’ve talked about before, when a grapheme is ambiguous, such as with ‘head’, where context could confirm that it’s ‘head’ not ‘heed’.
This is all very cheering. But I still feel that some issues are slightly unresolved in my mind, partly because the acceptableness of context in the process seems to hang on how one defines decoding – and many definitions seem to me to be a bit woolly and inconsistent in terms of what is actually happening in practice, eg:
Successful decoding occurs when a student uses his or her knowledge of letter-sound relationships to accurately read a word. (From here)
The goal of all phonics instruction is teaching our students the most common sound-spelling relationships so that they can decode, or sound out, words. (From here)
That is, in one case ‘decoding’ seems to refer to actions which take the reader relatively far through the process towards a meaningful word; the other seems to refer simply to using the graphemes to create the sound of the word. Neither, of course, may mean exactly what I’ve ascribed to them; and this ambiguity has come up many times when I’ve been reading up on SSP.
My question is, if it is OK to use context ‘after’ decoding, where is ‘after’? Is it once sounds have been made and before the word is recognized? This would seem to be the only logical interpretation.
But what about words where the possible sounds themselves are ambiguous, rather than the meaning of the word? If the word has not yet been sounded out correctly, because contextual disambiguation of grapheme-phoneme correspondence is yet to take place, would this be considered to take place ‘after’ decoding?
In the ‘head’ example, which my SSP correspondent considered to be an acceptable use of context, I would see the context as being used during decoding rather than after it.
(Otherwise, it would suggest that the sounding and blending of more than one possible word-sound, in readiness for disambiguation, would constitute ‘decoding’ of the graphemes in the word. For instance, would SSP define the sounding out of o-b-j-e-c-t as both ‘OBject’ AND obJECT’ or of r-e-a-d as both ‘reed’ AND ‘red’ as ‘decoding’ those words? That seems to me to be unlikely – but maybe I’m wrong.)
All this leads me to wonder about the anecdotes I’ve heard, about children sounding & blending without meaning. Does this result from a misunderstanding of SSP’s ‘first’, fast, and only’ mantra? Leaving aside the sheer difficulty of creating plausible word-sounds without reference to contextual meaning, especially beyond the earliest stages, is creating a near-plausible word-sound mistakenly being considered to be enough for a child to be ‘reading’? And if so, what can be done about it (given that the screening check will not bring this problem to light)?
The study which looked at the screening check’s effectiveness, and decided the check did what was asked of it, also concluded that in fact putting more money into supporting teaching staff might be a better use of the funds. If the adoption of SSP is leading to negative consequences in some cases, surely putting money into investigating this and sorting the problems out might be a good idea, too.
And if SSP allows sounding & blending to be appropriately but explicitly interwoven with context and meaning, then this would seem to me to be a very good thing.