Reading & meaning are inseparable. In order to have read a text properly you need to have understood its meaning – and of course there are layers of this in terms of implicit and explicit meanings, hence the subtle gradations of meaning that ‘to read’, as a verb, can have (read a book, read a map, read a face, read between the lines).
However, reading involves procedural skills which are functionally separable from meaning. Reading is not a single monolithic activity: it is a set of activities, all of which need to occur but which may be balanced differently for different readers reading different texts at different points in their cognitive development.
One of the activities necessary for successful reading (itself built out of a suite of yet more specific mental routines and activities), is the interpretation of the visual symbols which represent the words of a language. In modern writing systems these symbols represent the sounds of the language (rather than whole words), whether as some form of phonemic chunk or as syllables. In each case the reader is expected to interpret visual symbols as known sounds, and to combine those sounds to make words.
This interpretation from visual symbol to sound to aural vocabulary may happen in various ways, and at various degrees of conscious granularity. It is currently thought that a skilled reader’s brain processes each letter of a written word in parallel (i.e. simultaneously), but that the process involved is otherwise very similar to that which an unskilled reader performs in series. Some readers may be more aware of this process than others.
In order to interpret the symbols on the page, so that the words can communicate their meaning, the reader has to know the symbol-sound correspondences. Otherwise, since the written words connect with meaning via the sounds of the word, there is no easy way to extract meaning from the symbols on the page, since they are not pictograms with a direct symbol-meaning correspondence. If the word ‘dog’ were represented by the picture of a dog, for instance, we would not need the sounds of ‘d-o-g’ in English to know that a dog is being referred to – in fact, the pictogram could be used for any language spoken by people who know what dogs are.
But since the route to meaning in a phonetically-based alphabetic system such as ours is via sound, then the sounds of the language need to be taken into account when learning to read. It would be close to impossible to do it any other way.
How do you read?
In order to understand the importance of symbol-sound correspondence when reading English, here’s a little experiment. Look at the following, and tell me what it means:
This is my own personal script, just for the purposes of this experiment. It has the same kinds of letter-grapheme-sound relationships as our real English alphabetic code. That is, there is more than one way of representing the same sound (and the same letters or letter-groups may represent different sounds).
What does it say? What is the meaning of the words?
If, as a clue to the meaning, I were to show you a picture of a woman looking at a book, can you now tell me what the words mean?
Of course not. You could guess, but I think you’re very likely to be wrong.
If I tell you that /*~^ represents the word ‘read’ and )* represents the word ‘me’, and you learn them carefully, you will know them when you see them:
Which is this? /*~^
and which is this? )*
I would expect you to get them the right way around.
How about this?
/*~^ )* (#~
Did you recognise the first word? And the second?
So what about the third? What does that one mean?
You have no way of knowing.
What if I gave you a key to crack the code?
/ = the sound ‘r’
* = the sound ‘ee’
*~ = the sound ‘ee’ as well
^ = the sound ‘d’
) = the sound ‘m’
( = the sound ‘n’
#* = the sound ‘ow’
So the third word is ‘n-ow’ and the full phrase is ‘read me now’.
A few more symbols:
& = the sound ‘i’
+_ = the sound ‘ng’
Now look at this word, and find what it means:
If you cannot do this exact same thing when you are trying to read English as normally written, you cannot find any meaning in the written words. If you see @’£ next to a picture of a dog, without knowing the symbol-sound correspondences, how do you know it represents ‘dog’ and not ‘pup’ – or ‘hound’ – or ‘labradoodle’?
Making useful connections
When children are learning to read, they are reading very simple texts. The vocabulary is restricted to subjects that they are likely to understand – home life, nursery animals, vehicles, common foods, simple aspects of nature (trees, grass, sky, rain). The text is accompanied by pictures, for all sorts of important and valid reasons that I have discussed elsewhere.
If a child sees rain in a picture and makes the connection with the written pattern ‘rain’ in the text, they will make a broad link between the sound of that word and its written form.
But if they then see ‘train’, they will not always see that it is ‘rain’ preceded by ‘t’, and so, with out a picture of a train, they will, without deeper understanding of the letters’ symbol-sound correspondences, be unable to work out the word. Even with the picture, they may well say ‘engine’ anyway (especially if their lunchbox has Thomas on it). Use of pictures as clues to the meaning of the written word can weaken the link between the sounds of a spoken word and the written representation of those sounds.
Some children have better memories than others. Some only seem to need to see a word once or twice and they file it away ready for next time. Others find this difficult or impossible to do. In the early days, a child with very good recall can appear to be a more able reader than they actually are: some can ‘read’ a book having heard an adult read it to them, not by reading the words but by using the pictures (and occasional words) as memory prompts for the story that they have in their head. They give the appearance of fluent reading, but cannot ‘read’ the pages out of order because they are not, in fact, reading them at all.
Children with good memories can learn a lot of individual words, whether or not they understand the orthographic rules (though one could argue that those who learn to read quickly are those who grasp these rules on some level, consciously or not). However, in order to learn these words, if they have weak – or no – explicit knowledge or understanding of the relationship between written words and their sounds, they will need to be told each word individually in order to ‘know’ it.
This means that they are much more dependent on a supporting adult to advance their reading than is a child who can work out the sounds of a word for him or herself. There will always be some words which the child simply does not know – has never heard, or has heard but does not know the meaning. There will always be a need for a supporting adult.
However, a child can become much more self-sufficient in their reading if they can work more words out for themselves: if they can connect the written symbols with their aural vocabulary.
Some children have a very small aural [English] vocabulary relative to others. This is obviously a huge obstacle to them in learning to read, and needs to be addressed directly: it should not be used as an excuse for avoiding the symbol-sound correspondences when learning to read, but dealt with by helping them to increase their vocabulary.
The dreaded Phonics Screening Check
So what is the PSC meant to do?
The PSC is not a vocabulary test. It is not a test of how many words you know. Learning nonsense-words, because there are nonsense-words in the check, is itself a nonsense.
The Check’s purpose is to discover whether you can work out the symbol-sound correspondences for this:
so that you can ‘hear’ the word and – if it connects with your aural vocabulary – extract its meaning.
The nonsense words are there in order to isolate the symbol-sound correspondence from the sound-meaning correspondence, in order to discover whether the former is strong or weak.
The PSC should not take the meaning out of reading, if reading involves a symbol-sound correspondence. It simply isolates the symbol-sound aspect of reading, in order to ensure that children are able to make that connection.
Problems with the PSC
The PSC has some big weaknesses – its inclusion of real words makes the test result potentially meaningless, if you are wanting to test for procedural skill in working out symbol-sound correspondences. Half of the words (the real ones) may not be testing that skill at all, but simply a child’s power of recall. Recall is important too – but it is impossible to tell whether a sound-blend procedure or recall are being used, so the test has no valid results for either aspects of reading these words.
The other big weakness, in terms of helping children learn to read, is that though it is used as a proxy for reading ability, it does not address the massive issue of poor [English] vocabulary.
If reading problems are to be addressed, then testing one procedural skill, however vital (and it is vital, whether consciously deployed or not), without balancing it by paying equal attention to the development of vocabulary, will skew the system by encouraging those within it to pay attention to that which is tested, at the expense of that which is not.
It runs the risk of devaluing the untested aspects, no matter how often everybody says those aspects are of equal importance. In practice they are not of equal importance within the system, because the consequences of failure are less immediate, and less powerful.
The same kinds of weakness apply to the PSC at age 6 as to the KS1 comprehension test a year later: as Debbie Hepplewhite has argued, the KS1 test does not have the facility to show whether difficulties with the test material are down to poor vocabulary/comprehension, or poor understanding of symbol-sound correspondences (what SSP refers to as the English Alphabetic Code). The PSC has a similar problem: it shows up weaknesses in the application of symbol-sound correspondence, but has no facility to show up problems of vocabulary and comprehension.
As ever, the problem seems to come down to system rather than content: there is nothing wrong with ensuring that children know and understand symbol-sound correspondences. It is essential to long-term self-sufficient vocabulary building and good reading; it is also, in the abstract, good practice for learning procedural knowledge (and potentially translates to learning other procedural skills in the future).
There needs to be equal emphasis on the sound-meaning correspondence as on the symbol-sound one. That is, a child’s aural vocabulary, their store of meaningful sound-combinations, and their understanding of how to fit that vocabulary into a mature syntax, needs to be growing too – to be consciously, actively grown by the supporting adults, whether at school or at home.
Without equal emphasis on this sound-meaning aspect in terms of consequences for all involved, it is in danger of becoming the weaker element, just as symbol-sound correspondence was the weaker element in recent decades, and obviously national literacy levels will not improve: there will just be different problems, different children falling behind unnecessarily.