Decoding, comprehension and muddled thinking

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We know from a variety of different studies that the same regions of the brain are activated when we read as are activated in speech comprehension. As we are reading, our brains are hunting for meaning and, as long as a word is in our vocabulary, we understand it as we read. Of course, in the case of highly proficient readers, all of this happens in milliseconds and under the level of our conscious attention. For the beginning reader, things aren’t quite as straightforward.
The simple view of reading contends that efficient reading is the product of decoding ability and comprehension. These are the core competencies. To make sense of text, the reader must first be able to ‘lift the words off the page’, or turn spellings into sounds and blend the sounds together to produce words. Once decoding has taken place, only if the word or words are within the reader’s spoken comprehension will the message be understood, even if the reader is a super-efficient decoder. For example, I can read anything in Italian or Spanish or German but I don’t always know the meanings of the words.
It’s also true that our definition of what constitutes good comprehension will vary according to age and according to the amount of cultural background knowledge any particular reader possesses. For beginning readers (YR to Y2) and for students who can’t read fluently, we should, for the most part, be presenting texts that focus on practising fluency. Those texts should also, for most students, be fairly literal – as opposed to the kinds of more sophisticated, interpretive (figurative) meaning we expect of more mature readers.
This is quite different from the kinds of texts we might ourselves as teachers or carers, read to young children, which can and should contain all kinds of figurative meaning. The reason for the focus in teaching beginning reading and writing to be on literal meaning is that literal meaning is innate. For L1 speakers, literal meaning is straightforward and doesn’t need to be taught because children’s vocabularies vastly exceed what they are, as yet, able to read. So, in the beginning, teachers need to focus attention on teaching children to decode fluently.
Why should decoding be our prime concern? It’s important because to understand textual meaning, we must be able to hold sufficient amounts of text in working memory. If decoding ability is insufficiently automatic, the strain on working memory is enormous. Being unable to read more than about 60 words per minute is going to result in the reader being unable to remember the beginning of the sentence or paragraph by the time they get to the end. If reading speed does not increase, children won’t be able to understand more complex text.
Therefore, in the beginning of learning to read, automatising the decoding process must be our primary goal and teachers need to be aware that, aside from the issue of including large numbers of infrequently encountered words, the complexity of the text being presented should also be a major consideration. For example, syntactical complexity and the introduction of embedded relative clauses will place further strain on working memory.
In other words, the focus should be on learning to read, which subsumes a number of different aspects which I have explained a number of times before on this blog. Once children are out of the starting blocks, the kinds of texts they should be practising on should be commensurate with what they are learning in their phonics programme. And large amounts of practice needs to be available: ‘readathons’ and other encouragements are vitally important in improving fluency and comprehension, as well as reading for expression. To emphasise the point once again, if reading speed doesn’t increase, children won’t be able to understand what they read.
In developed countries, fluency without understanding is relatively rare. The number of children unable to understand text requiring a literal understanding is likely to be very low. In these relatively few instances, lack of understanding can be attributed to several things, among which are: poor language knowledge, especially for non-L1 speakers at home; shorter working memory capacity; intellectual problems; and, limited attention span.
Learning to read a transparent language, such as Spanish or Italian, is very much easier and enables the reader to make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn in a relatively short period of time. Leaning to read a more opaque and complex language such as English takes much more time (three years). For this reason, the training of teachers charged with teaching children in the early years needs to be done properly. Providing trainee teachers with a few hours here and there doesn’t cut it. If teachers don’t have a clear understanding of how the writing system works in relation to the sounds of the language and understand issues to do with working memory, they simply won’t be able to teach reading well and they will always be to be sidetracked into activities that don’t correlate to teaching reading and spelling successfully and waste time.

What’s the solution: (read my lips) train the teachers.

4 thoughts on “Decoding, comprehension and muddled thinking

  1. It's unfortunate that Sir Jim Rose felt it necessary to tack on the "Simple View" to his report. As you explain very well, you won't understand/comprehend any text that you wouldn't understand if the communication were spoken, and "comprehension" morphs with the age of child and reading expertise, so the term is a reified abstraction that leads only to inadvertent instructional mal-practice. However, what was done was done.

    The term "decoding" likewise down-plays the substance and structure of the Alphabetic Code as the sine qua non of reading. Metaphorically, we "lift words off the page," but in reality we use the Alphabetic Code to treat the written communication in the same way we would were it spoken.

    I know you strongly believe that "the solution is training." I don't dis-believe, but there are some pesky issues. One is that teachers in the aggregate aren't jumping to get further training and Head Teachers believe their teachers have already been trained. Another, is that the ITT profs in the aggregate need training more than teachers do. And good luck with educating ITT profs.

    I'm not as confident as you are that even the "best training" has the consequences intended. (The matter is readily testable by comparing the results schools and teachers trained in the Match funding to those who weren't trained.) When I've done follow-ups, the teacher participants reported they liked the training, learned a lot, and so on, when I looked at what they were doing, it bore very little resemblance to what I thought I was teaching. They had very good reasons for doing what they were doing and thought they were "doing it right–or the best possible under the circumstances," but bottom line the training didn't work.

    The experience in the US with "professional development" in connection with "Reading First" came to the same conclusion. Teachers changed the way they talked, but not the way they taught.

    Seems to me a better route is to emulate the ways the business sector handles "Tech Support." If you don't have a problem, you're in good shape. If you do have a problem, whatever it is, get on the phone and/or on the "computer" and contact us. We'll help you troubleshoot and resolve whatever the problem is.

    A problem with the Tech Support route is that teachers often don't know they have a problem. That's where instruments like the Alphabetic Code Screening Check come into play. Programmes have been slow to build in "Cookies" that can trigger teacher-alerts, but such mechanisms are quite feasible to build.

    "More training is needed"–but possibly with some upgrades in the model?

  2. Thanks once again for your (always) cogent comments, Dick.
    I was thinking about you last week when I attended the RRF annual conference and wondering if you'd be over again. Anyway, to return to the discussion…
    The description of the 'simple view' as 'a reified abstraction that leads to inadvertent mal-practice' couldn't be more accurate. And, as you suggest, we become so inured to terminology like 'lifting words off the page' that the words lose their meaning and hence their real import.
    You're right in saying I'm committed to training and there are indeed some 'pesky' issues. Just as you found in your follow ups, Jeanne Chall identified many of these issues in Reading – The Great Debate and in many of her subsequent books. I can't remember where in her books but I remember reading that after a training: 25% of people will follow your guidance with a very high degree of fidelity; 50% will pursue it with some degree of fidelity but won't be able to resist including things that run counter to the taught approach; and, 25% will not do it at al or will do it so badly that its effect will be minimal.
    On the whole, I have to agree with you that teachers (in large numbers), are not 'jumping' to get trained. That isn't to say that we don't run a lot of trainings around the UK and also now in Australia but, as a percentage of the total, the numbers we train are pretty small [13,000 in the past twelve years]
    Heads seem to be increasingly willing to give us a hearing, though relating a message which is fairly complex can be a challenge.
    As for ITT profs, there has been a tiny change. The commitment to whole language/Look and Say is beginning, albeit slowly, to thaw as a new generation replaces the cold war warriors of yore. I'm speaking at a local university, where I've been asked to give a talk on phonics to three groups of 100 final year students. This is the third university that has asked me to do this in the past two years. In addition, we started running an ITT training in Bedfordshire last year, which I have been asked to continue in September.
    I don't know whether you disagree but I still remain convinced that showing teachers where and how writing systems developed, why and how we got the one we're saddled before going on to talk about how it works specifically and how we should teach it, is the way forward. Persuade people of a point intellectually and they may then be prepared to see if what you're 'selling' works in practice.
    I also think that your own philosopher Richard Rorty had something when he wrote that 'some vocabularies are better representations of the world than others, as opposed to being better tools for dealing with the world for one or another purpose' It is, he wrote, 'a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a half-formed one that vaguely promises great things.' (Contingency, irony and solidarity). So, the view I try and promote is one which embraces the idea of first understanding the totality of how the sounds of the language, as the function of the writing system we have to represent them, work in practice.
    A bit of a tall order? Perhaps, but, without the vision, the 'simple view of phonics' is not likely to enthuse anyone.
    As a really very small private company, it is beyond our reach to do much in the way of follow-up (an upgrade) in schools, unless they have trained the whole staff. So, fixing poor practice after the event is almost impossible.
    Thanks for your support on the Local Schools Network, too. Oh the places you go …
    Stay well!

  3. 25% of people will follow your guidance with a very high degree of fidelity; 50% will pursue it with some degree of fidelity but won't be able to resist including things that run counter to the taught approach; and, 25% will not do it at all or will do it so badly that its effect will be minimal.
    Hmm. That's pretty much like the ubiquitous "3 reading groups" isn't it. Wegotta do better than that. The trick is to get to the long fat tail that the training doesn't impact. More training doesn't turn the trick. It's gotta be something else.

    Seems to me it takes tighter feedback loops. The UK Screening Check is an example. It's working, albeit slower than optimal. More such loops are needed.

    Although I guess we should take heart in the small and fragmentary changes in ITT, the changes are glacial at best. That is really no obstacle. Your training would go over better with students who have been exposed to no "college education" than it goes with the "highly trained teachers" you are dealing with; less unlearning would be involved.

    Yes, I think it's very important that everyone (but especially teachers, understand how English written communication "came to be." As it is, our language–both spoken and written–is maligned rather than honored and is viewed as highly complex and idiosyncratic. Those are unproductive meta-cognitions to be up against, and they can be shot down pretty quickly.

    Incidentally, if you're interested in follow-up, the easy way to do it is with the (Alphabetic Code) Screening Check. Administering the Check to students is a "fit for purpose" way to identify teachers who "need further training."

  4. Hi Dick,
    Three reading groups, indeed! But, it is possible to parse these out a bit.
    In the group that train and don't use the programme, from what we (the trainers and I) know: some would attend the course having only just arrived in school as teaching assistants, after, say, stacking shelves in a supermarket the week before; some would arrive as 'isolates' (the only TA sent by a secondary school, only to have scorn poured onto the idea of phonics teaching when they return – takes a tough-minded individual to brave that kind of derision; others would be struggling with their own literacy and really shouldn't have been sent in the first place; and, there are staff at all levels that train and are not asked to use the programme for the next year, after which they feel too intimidated to start.
    In the middle group, the main problem is that, though persuaded initially of the logic and coherence of Sounds-Write, they get back in school and through their own 'unwillingness' to 'put in the time', they status quo; or, maybe they just can't bear not to teach that rainbow arc, or whatever.
    Last week, at the RRF, I was told of a head teacher who took out a dinner trolley and went round the school collecting all the phonic books from every corner of the school to throw them into the school skip!
    We also often hear of newly arriving heads who, on hearing that the teachers use Sounds-Write/other progs, order their staff to start doing something else. This happened a great deal, especially in Wigan, after the government came out with their vastly inferior Letters and Sounds – dogs and lampposts come to mind here.
    I would love to run the check on our course attendees but then, with maybe 20 in a group, it would take half the first morning. Incidentally, in the final guided assignment, there is a very nice segmenting question, which some students find difficult even after four days of training!!
    Yet, after all this, we forge ahead. We have schools that wouldn't use anything else and who do well enough to persuade others.
    Ultimately, I think that this is a generational thing. When all of the kids taught good quality phonics programmes get in to teaching themselves, the task will become very much easier. Anyway, that's the optimistic scenario. If I didn't think we make a difference and that things are going to change, I'd pack it in and read all the novels I've got stacked up here awaiting my attention.

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