Debunking Common Reading Myths

There are a lot of myths surrounding reading, and it’s time to bring the truth to the fore and settle these reading myths for good!

 

Myth #1: We read naturally – Reading is a learned behavior. It needs to be taught with deliberate intention and understanding in order for someone to attain the result of reading comprehension. It is a complex process with systematic learning used in conjunction with a fluent reader as teacher. Assigning meaning to reading is the most difficult learning of all. Leaving a child to read on their own with no assistance will not result in their ability to read or comprehend.

 

Myth #2: Once is enough – For fluent reading, repetition is required. When a child is learning to read they are bringing letters, sounds, and words together. They bring this together having been guided (taught) by a role model, usually a parent or teacher. They then associate words together, learn punctuation, and add tone for fluency.  The mentor helps them learn to assign meaning to the words and phrases, which needs to then be committed to memory. In early childhood development this process takes repeated effort.

Like most skills that become natural, practice makes perfect. As adults we can look back and think this is simple, forgetting how long it took us to learn as an infant.

 

Myth #3: Children understand if they can tell you something about the story – Engagement of any sort is a positive step forward. However, the question and answer technique can prove to be limiting. It is critical not to assume a child has full comprehension of a text because he or she can answer one or two questions. Opening a true dialogue for discussion is better than a Q&A technique to understand if they have reading comprehension.

 

Myth #4: Fluent reading = good comprehension – This is a definite myth. Too often a parent thinks their child has good reading comprehension when in fact what they have is the ability to read the words on the page. The hardest step of all is to assign meaning and extract information from text. Many children have learned to ‘get away with it’ because their reading sounds fabulous, if not advanced.

 

Myth #5: The words are too hard for my children – No they are not. The active child brain is a great problem solver. Exposing children to difficult words will add to their vocabulary in the longer term.

 

Myth #6: Word lists work – This old-school teaching method required that students find the definitions of a list of words and learn them. Each week a new list arrived.  However, out of context this method of learning provides limited to no value for a child. Learning and development methods today realise that words in context are required to provide association, and to move them into short and then long-term memory.

 

Myth #7: There is no fun in learning words – Gamification of learning is one of the best ways to help children – and adults – learn. Scrabble, Pictionary, crossword puzzles etc. all bring fun into the learning environment. The more fun a child is having, the more likely they are to remember the principles of the lesson.

 

Myth #8: My child is a late reader, but I don’t have to worry – Not true. Studies have found that of the children struggling with reading in Year 1, around 88% will still be struggling in Year 3. The consequential impact can be debilitating as they fall behind and poor reading performance starts to impact other areas of their life. Losing confidence or being shamed takes its toll. Early intervention is required to ensure a child has no medical reason for a learning development problem e.g. ear infection, deafness etc. Most difficulties in a child’s reading are directly linked to a lack of understanding of phonemes and phonics.

 

The first three years of school will be the most critical, and what has occurred at home prior to this will set the foundation for childhood reading comprehension. If a child has not had reading experience at home, good teaching in these first three years can slowly overcome the impact of this but it can be a difficult road for your child.

Breaking Down The Reading Process

visually and auditory

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’?

 

Decoding

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.

 

Language Processing

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

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.

Are You Sure You Know How To Spell?

How often do you question your ability to spell? And do you question if you got it right, but then not bother to check?

There are some common mistakes that people tend to make when spelling, and we’ve decided to clarify a few of them here.

To vs Too vs TwoTo is often used in conjunction with a verb or as a preposition, e.g. I was going to be late.

Too means to be in addition, e.g. I ate too much?

Two is the written form of the number 2, e.g. I need two ice creams.

Lose vs LooseLose is when something you have is gone e.g. it was sad to lose my job.

Loose is something that has a lot of room around it, e.g. my pants are very loose since I lost all that weight.

Weird vs Wierd – It is weird to spell weird, weirdly. The reason for this is that most people apply the widely-known rule of ‘i before e except after c’. Weird is one of the exceptions to this rule, but it’s still a common mistake.

Chose vs Choose – Choose is the present tense of the verb ‘to choose’, e.g. you often hear children asking each other “which lollies will you choose?”

Chose is the past tense of ‘to choose’, e.g. he chose to stay behind and look for his dog because it had gone missing.

Seize vs Sieze vs CeaseSeize means to take or grab e.g. they went to seize his passport when he got caught smuggling drugs. This is another exception to the ‘i before e except after c’ rule.

Cease means to halt or stop something, e.g. they were going to cease operations when the summer was over.

Effect vs Affect – The general rule is that effect is a noun, e.g. the effect was mesmerising.

Affect is a verb, e.g. his absence was affecting everyone’s ability to finish the project on time.

Definitely not Definately – There is definitely no “a” in definitely.

Weather vs Whether – One describes the weather outside when it is raining, sunny, stormy or hailing etc.

The other whether is used to describe a decision or comparison, e.g. I wasn’t sure whether to have salmon or beef for dinner.

Then vs ThanThen is used when writing about time, e.g. we went to the shops and then out for lunch.

Than is used to compare objects, e.g. his car had better fuel consumption than mine.

Moot vs Mute – This is a common mistake that makes people cringe when they hear or read it. The saying is “it’s a moot point”, not “it’s a mute point.

A moot point is up for debate or discussion because there is something unclear about the impact of it.

A mute point would technically be no point at all because mute means to turn off, refrain from speaking or muffle sound, or someone who is unable to speak.

Rein vs Reign vs Rain – As a noun, a rein is the strap that is attached to a horse’s bit. E.g. the rein on the horse still had to be tightened. As a verb, rein means to guide a horse by pulling the reins, e.g. he reined in his horse.

To reign is to hold office or rule as a monarch, e.g. the king held reign over England.

Rain is what falls from the sky, e.g. I can see the rain falling from the clouds.

Three examples in spelling that indicate contraction and possession:

Their, They’re and ThereThey’re is a contraction of ‘they are’, e.g. they’re late again. Their shows possession, e.g. I have their best interest at heart.

There is used when referring to a destination or an idea, e.g. I am going over there to buy a coffee.

It’s vs Its – The two rules here are that when you contract the words ‘it is’ you use it’s, e.g. it’s a pain to drive you home from work every night.

When you indicate possession you use its, e.g. its body was long, white, and powerful.

The reason this is confusing is because usually to indicate possession an apostrophe is used, e.g. the dog’s bone.

You’re vs Your – The two rules here again show contraction or possession.

You’re is used to shorten ‘you are’, e.g. You’re terrible.

The second example of your is the possession, e.g. your dog ate my dinner.

Erratic English Spelling

English is a patchwork language, full of words adopted from people who conquered Britain and people who Britain conquered. It’s heavily influenced by Greek and Latin vocabulary, embraces new words coined all the time and includes a multitude of words absorbed from myriad sources. As the language expanded, new phonemes were added that had to be represented using the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet.

In the English language, 14 letters of the alphabet represent one sound only. The other 12 letters can represent up to seven different sounds each. Take the letter ‘u’: it’s used to represent the sounds /uh/ (as in ‘up’), /yoo/ (as in ‘use’), /oo/ (as in ‘put’), /oo/ (as in ‘fruit’), /ih/ (as in ‘busy’), /w/ (as in ‘quick’) and /eh/ (as in ‘bury’).

Traditional Latin languages such as Italian and Spanish are phonetic: they have a corresponding number of phonemes and letters. A reader can look at a word written in Italian or Spanish and know how to say it. 

English isn’t phonetic. It has almost twice as many phonemes (between 42 and 45) as letters (26), depending on the definition of a phoneme (for example, some people consider the long ‘a’ sound, /ay/, a singular phoneme, while others consider it comprises two existing phonemes, /eh/ and /ih/). In English, there’s little correspondence between how words are spelt and how they’re spoken.

English spelling contains two-way ambiguity. First, many phonemes can be spelt in multiple ways. For example, the long /ee/ sound in ‘me’ can be spelt ‘e’, ‘ey’, ‘ee’, ‘ei’, ‘ea’, ‘i’, ‘ie’ or ‘y’. This kind of ambiguity results in words that are spelt differently but sound exactly the same (homophones). For example, ‘steel’ and ‘steal’, ‘ate’ and ‘eight’, ‘night’ and ‘knight’.

Second, many letters and letter combinations can represent multiple phonemes. For example, the letter ‘a’ represents its standard phoneme /a/ (as in ‘at’) plus at least four other phonemes (as in ‘ate’, ‘wash’, ‘any’ and ‘about’). This ambiguity results in different words that are spelt the same way but pronounced differently (homographs). For example, ‘bow’ represents three words, two rhyming with ‘cow’ and the other with ‘show’.

Homographic ambiguity is common in English and particularly challenging for emerging readers. It means there’s more than one way to decode a word, which can lead to all kinds of errors when reading.

Pairs of letters, or digraphs, such as ‘ou’ and ‘th’ are also used to represent some of the extra phonemes in speech. Again, there are multiple ways to pronounce digraphs, which adds further complexity to written English. Although some spelling patterns help with learning pronunciation, there are many more exceptions.

Different pronunciations of ‘ough’

And that’s not all. English applies segments of sound or speech (syllables) inconsistently as well, reflecting patterns that have evolved over time. Anyone who has studied Shakespeare might guess correctly that the word ‘converged’ was once pronounced with three syllables, and only uses two in Modern English. But how would an emerging reader know that ‘converged’ has two syllables while ‘converted’ has three?

The English language is also full of letters that are silent in some words but spoken in similar contexts, like the letter ‘g’ in ‘sign’ (silent) and ‘signature’ (spoken). It would be impossible for an emerging reader to predict how ‘chasm’, ‘know’, ‘debt’ and ‘thought’ are pronounced without guidance.

Conventional methods of learning English involve students memorizing multiple rules and thousands of exceptions just to be able to read everyday words. For those who struggle with reading for any reason, these inherent complexities cause great difficulties.

This is an excerpt from a short book written by the founders of Readable English, Ann Fitts and Chris Stephen, titled “Readable English: Why Learning To Read English Is So Hard And How To Make It Easier”. You can access the entire book from the Readable English website.