Don’t laugh at the funny man on the phone.
Language is one of the greatest achievements of human evolution. The decoding of its written form is one of the most fundamentally important skills our children must learn if they are to function effectively in the modern world.
The psychology of reading is complex. Much of what goes on in the mind stays hidden from our conscious experience. For example, our eyes don’t smoothly scan across a page of text. We read through jerky eye movements called saccades. As we scan a sentence across a page, we don’t experience any jerkiness because our brain ‘smooths out’ our perception of these movements so they appear smooth and regular.
As adults we have forgotten how we experienced reading as children. Consider what happens when we read. Those marks on the page, the letters of our alphabet, are just that – marks on a page. If they have meaning at all it’s because we have collectively agreed on that.
Some of these negotiated meanings can be bewildering to decode. Here’s what a child needs to do to extract meaning from a new word or phrase.
* She first needs to understand the relationship between the arrangement of letters on the page and the sounds associated with them. No mean task given the illogical rules of a sizeable minority of these associations in English. In the subheading of this article, for example, three completely different arrangements of letters all produce the same sound: Correct decoding of each of the differently spelled words ‘laugh’, ‘funny’ and ‘phone’ should result in an identical f-sound.
* Let’s say our child successfully decodes the word ‘phone’. Now she must compare this newly deciphered word with her existing spoken vocabulary to make a connection. If successful our young reader will have converted some marks on paper into sounds which she recognises as a word for something – in this case phone. She has made a connection between symbols and an object in the real world.
A number of tools currently exist which have been designed to help young readers decode unfamiliar words. Here are just a few of the ways teachers use these tools to increase word recognition:
• Sounding out: The child is asked to sound out the unfamiliar word.
• Pictures: Where the word is associated with a picture the child is asked whether the decoded word ‘fits’ with the pictorial representation of it.
• Chunks: Children may be taught to to look for common groups of letters. Endings make good examples – the ‘-ing’ ending for example.
• Sense checking in context: Once the child has decoded a word, she can be asked to read the whole sentence, including the newly de-coded word, to see whether it makes sense.
• Reading on: The reader can be taught to simply read beyond the troublesome word as a way of checking whether the meaning she has extracted is the correct one.
Once mastered, reading opens up a world of infinite possibility and wonder for the child. Anything our educators can do to help them prise open the lid of that magic box is to be welcomed.