Students in the classroom take in information in two primary ways, visually and auditory. Listening to a teacher talk is auditory information, and reading is visual information. As information is received, students are required to process it. They need to hold on to the details, follow the sequence, get the main idea and exercise higher order or critical thinking skills (including drawing conclusions, making inferences and making predictions). Then, to convey that this processing is happening, they need to talk or write about it by answering questions or having a conversation.
The information coming in auditory (listening to the teacher) is called receptive oral language. Information coming in visually (through reading) is called receptive written language. The information going out is either expressive oral language (communicating by speaking) or expressive written language (communicating by writing). This is the learning process that is expected of students all day long in the classroom. Students are assessed by how well they are able to take in information and how well they are able to express their understanding, either orally or in written form.
Breaking Down the Reading Process
If we break down the receptive written language process (reading), we find that there are several parts of the brain functioning at the same time. Scientific studies have been conducted where people who are good readers have been given fMRI scans of their brains while reading. It was found that several areas of the brain were consistently lit up, including auditory, visual and language specific areas. The same scans were done on people who struggle with reading and it was found that one or more of those same areas of the brain were not lit up. This means that people who struggle with reading may have issues with auditory processing, visual processing or language processing, all of which are needed for decoding written language.
Auditory Processing/Phonemic Awareness
When we say auditory processing what we are really referring to is phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is the ability to discern the sounds and sequence of sounds within a syllable or word. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound, usually represented by one letter (e.g. /t/). Phonemic awareness is slightly different from, but related to, phonics in that phonics teaches the sounds that correspond with each letter, or letter-sound association. Some students might know their phonetic alphabet, yet still have phonemic awareness issues. For example, they might know that the letter ‘l’ says /l/, but can they discern or hear the sound /l/ in the word ‘split’?
Auditory processing or phonemic awareness issues affect decoding or what is sometimes called word attack. Word attack is what we do with a word we’ve never seen before. We need to separate the word into its phonemes, and then blend them all back together in the right sequence to read the whole word. This is called ‘segmentation’ and ‘blending’. A student with poor phonemic awareness and auditory processing may see the word ‘stream’ but read ‘steam’, omitting the sound /r/. If you point to the letter ‘r’ and ask what letter it is they’ll be able to tell you. Further, if you ask them what sound it makes, the student will also be likely to tell you /r/. But when you ask them to read the word again, they’ll still omit the sound /r/, because they don’t perceive that they’ve omitted that sound. The types of mistakes students with phonemic awareness issues include:
- Adding sounds that aren’t there – i.e. reading ‘sand’ for ‘sad’
- Omitting sounds that are there – i.e. reading ‘steam’ for ‘stream’
- Substituting sounds – i.e. reading ‘fell’ instead of ‘fill’
- Switching sounds – i.e. reading ‘gril’ instead of ‘girl’
With phonemic awareness issues, students will inevitably resort to guessing within their vocabulary. So, for example, a student may see the word ‘complication’, but incorrectly switch letters in the middle syllable to ‘pil’. They therefore read the entire word as ‘com-pil-ca-tion’, and knowing that it isn’t a real word, they will guess a word they do know and may come up with ‘completion’ or ‘compilation’. Unless they have enough context to help them guess correctly, guessing will not only change the meaning of what they’ve read, it is also a lost opportunity for gaining new vocabulary.
Another strategy students may attempt is to memorize every word. And as long as they have good visual processing skills, this will work well up until about 4th or 5th grade, when curriculum and vocabulary begin to get more sophisticated with more multi-syllabic words. Poor word attack skills at both the single and multi-syllabic level will slow down a student’s reading, thereby causing them to lose or forget information they’ve already read. So often we see students who on the outset have “comprehension” issues, when really their comprehension is being affected by their decoding errors, especially at the multi-syllabic level.
Visual Processing/Sight Word Recognition
In order to develop fluency when reading, we begin to recognize words by sight, which means we don’t need to decode words every time we see them. Rather, we can recognize whole words and even phrases by sight. The way this memorization works is that we see a word a few times and it gets imprinted in the visual processing part of our brain. Then, when we see the word again, we have something to compare it to and that is how we recognize it.
Students with visual processing issues have a difficult time with word recognition and memorization. The way this shows up is that a student will read a word in a paragraph but when they see the very same word even as soon as the very next sentence, it is like they’ve never seen it before. For a typical reader it takes 10-20 exposures to a word before it is recognized effortlessly, but for people with visual processing issues it may take more like 50 to 100 exposures.
Poor sight word recognition slows down reading fluency, because more often students are needing to sound out, or decode, a word. When reading speed is too slow, comprehension is affected because information is forgotten. Poor sight word recognition and visual processing also impacts the way a student spells, because without that visual representation in their mind of how a word should look, they have no way of self-correcting.
Sight word recognition is the basis behind the rote learning approach to teaching reading which is a memorization technique based on repetition. The downside of strictly memorizing words is that when a student gets to a word they’ve never seen before, especially long words, with no one to tell them what the word sounds like they may not have adequate word attack skills to figure it out for themselves.
When we’re reading text, there is a context to what we are reading. Understanding that context can help us self correct when we misread something. For example, if we read, “The dog ran out of the horse” we would know that this doesn’t make sense because of our vocabulary and the context. We infer that the word ‘horse’ should be ‘house’, thereby self-correcting. Essentially we are using our vocabulary and the context of what we are reading to help us read, which is fine if we only stumble over one or two words.
This is the basis for the whole language approach to teaching reading. Whole language focuses on meaning and strategy instruction. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you read every single word correctly or not as long as you are getting the meaning. The problem with this approach is that if students are not recognizing several words because of poor sight word recognition, or they can’t sound out words because of poor word attack skills, there isn’t enough understanding of the context to help them self correct and their comprehension will be seriously compromised.
Reading fluency is the ability to read accurately, quickly and with good prosody. This in turn aids our ability to focus on the reason we read which is understanding or comprehension. It is clear that reading fluency is optimized when auditory, visual and language processing skills are all used simultaneously. When we have good word attack skills, can quickly recognize sight words, and can use our vocabulary and the context to help us, we are on our way to fluent reading.
Another Important Element In Reading – The English Language
Along with all the processing needed to be able to read, there is another element – the difficulty of the English language itself. English is difficult to learn to read because many words are not pronounced the way they are spelled, and there are many exceptions as there are spelling rules.
Find out how Readable English develops the key reading skills while addressing the underlying issues of the English language.