Following on from my previous posting, I want to consider what the implications are for what our eyes are doing when we are learning to read?
Certainly, because the span of fixations are more limited, the beginning reader needs more fixations and saccades to hold text in foveal view. This and the fact that publishers increase font size may, the authors speculate, lead beginning readers to look at the initial letters in a word and to guess. Of course, as we are well aware, many teachers promoting multi-cueing techniques reinforce this tendency by asking young children to look at the first letter or the accompanying illustrations and to guess what word might come next.
Such a strategy may seem to offer a quick solution, especially if a word is guessed correctly. However, this is rarely the case! Multi-cueing must always collapse back into a whole language approach, which, to paraphrase Diane McGuinness, promises everything and delivers nothing’*.
On the other hand, in their research article ‘Literacy Development: Insights from Research on Skilled Reading’, Jane Ashby and Keith Rayner insist that by attending carefully to the detail of words and linking print to sound, a child is embedding and anticipating advances in later reading development. After all, it is the internal details, the complexities of the spellings of many of the vowel sounds, that are fundamental to successful decoding. The corollary of this is that it is vitally important to teach beginning readers using high quality phonics programmes because children who can recode spellings into speech sounds are able to match them to their oral/aural repertoire. This skill is also an indispensable device in ‘generalizing the meaning of spoken words to written words [and] is a valuable self-teaching tool’.
In addition, being able to identify (read) words without having to resort to context has a number of crucial ramifications:
First, it helps to build high quality representations of word-specific sound-spelling correspondences.
Second, the ability to process text automatically enables a reader to apply themselves entirely and without distraction to such things as ambiguity of language, lexical choice, the ‘vagaries’ of plot construction, as well as the complexities of syntax and grammar in more challenging texts. As I have pointed out before in postings, if the cognitive load of decoding text is low, resources can be allocated to other, higher order skills.
Third, automatic word recognition (or decoding) also reduces the difference between reading and listening comprehension. In the beginning, readers’ listening comprehension skills vastly exceed their reading comprehension skills; yet, as decoding ability improves to the point of automaticity, the disparity between the two reduces to the point where written text is easily comprehensible.
Moreover, given how lexically impoverished everyday speech is in comparison with written language, reading will offer vastly more opportunities for learning new words than oral language alone can offer [cf Keith Stanovich’s ‘Measuring Print exposure’ in Progress in Understanding Reading].
Interestingly, the authors also point out that ‘[b]ooks with short words allow children to register all the letters in a word during a fixation’ (p.58), a contention which would lend strong support to the use, in the beginning stages of learning to read, of decodable readers containing short words.
However, the central message conveyed by Ashby and Rayner I will leave in their words:
“Instruction that develops a child’s ability to read unfamiliar words accurately (and familiar words quickly) will, by definition, build the efficient word-recognition processes that are necessary for text comprehension.”
Ashby, J. & Rayner, K., ‘Literacy Development: Insights from Research on Skilled Reading’, in Dickinson, D.K and Neuman, S., Eds, (2006), Handbook of Early Literacy Research, Vol 2, London, Guilford Press, pp 52-63
McGuinness, D., (2004), Early Reading Instruction, London, The MIT Press.