My previous post (http://tucsoncitizen.com/tired-tucson-teacher/2012/04/19/why-we-teach-what-we-teach/) discussing the concept of teaching facts over beliefs came up again for me in an entirely different subject: reading. Stephen Sawchuk writing in Education Weekly (1) discusses the movement across many states to implement a more rigorous teaching reading curriculum.
The foundation of the curriculum is in the areas of phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency. While I hold that these are all important to the process I feel that something is missing here. Unfortunately many research professionals are ignoring an obvious dichotomy that I see existing within the list. Phonics and phonemic awareness and separately vocabulary do not equate with comprehension and fluency.
To be an effective reader, a student must not simply identify the words by sound but by meaning and then string those words together with others to arrive at understanding. Reading means understanding what is read, the implications and the expected intuitions. When evaluating students as to their reading ability the only true measurement should be whether they understand what they have read. It doesn’t matter how fast, or slow, or how fluent or if they recognize the words and what they mean. If the reader cannot put it all together to understand what the writer is saying it means next to nothing.
Sawchuk states that the basis of the reading instruction support for teachers can be found in a study from Wisconsin. (2) The first stated goal is that “comprehension is the ultimate goal” and in that I agree. But pursuant to the premise is the understanding that without comprehension there is no reading. Personally I love Pavarotti’s various renditions of “Nessun Dorma“. As a bathroom baritone I may be able to teach myself how to pronounce all the words in Italian without understanding what a single one of them means; doing simple mimicry, without comprehension. Pavarotti can convey the passion of the moment with his voice but I have no understanding of the reasons for his transcendent emotions if I have not read a translation or learned how to actually read in Italian.
A study by Betty Hart and Tood Risley, from 1995 states that children living in poverty have as much as a “3 MILLION words heard” deficit by the age three. That means that they have heard 3 million fewer words than their peers in more affluent families. Yesterday, I was holding my 8 month old granddaughter, Annabelle, when she began the mewling that precedes her crying for something. My wife sitting across the room asked if she needed more of her bottle. Annabelle, sitting looking to my right at my wife instantly swiveled her head to look at the bottle sitting to my left. I borrowed a line from Jurassic Park, and said, “Clever girl!” A few seconds later I repeated the experiment with the same result.
My point is that, as in architecture where form follows function, in reading, phonics follow understanding. It comes down to the basic question of whether I would rather have a child able to figure out words by understanding content or discern content by knowing words? Both are important to the emerging learner but in the final analysis the former must supersede the latter because without meaning there is no communication and the purpose of reading is to communicate, just as I hope I am doing with you right now.
Which means what? It dictates that our focus should be on developmental education, rich in content and meaning for all children. If we want our children to be fluent readers, we must speak fluently to them, often and with a richness that makes them participants in language. We should be investing in appropriate early education, for all children, not drills and tricks but true language-rich environments that seduce the young child into learning language just as television, computers and hand-held game devices have seduced so many into the non-interactive world.
(3) Hart, Betty and Todd Risley, “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3!”. Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children, 1995.