Fluency with Reading and Spelling Words
Advances in technology have allowed researchers, mainly in the areas of psychology and artificial intelligence, to investigate brain functions, eye movements, and other basic reading processes. The focus of this research was not on how to teach reading or on comparisons of various approaches but rather on what happens internally when we read and how this changes as readers move from beginning stages to more sophisticated reading.
We know that readers look at nearly all the words and almost all the letters in those words. The amount of time spent processing each letter is incredibly small, only a few hundredths of a second in proficient readers. The astonishingly fast letter recognition for letters within familiar words and patterns is due to our brains expecting certain letters to occur in sequence with each other.
Readers usually recode printed words into sound. Although it is possible to read without any internal speech, we rarely do (Stanovich, 2000). Normally as we read, we think the words in our mind. We then check this phonological information with the visual information we received by analyzing the word for familiar spelling patterns. Saying the words aloud or thinking the words also seems to perform an important function in holding the words in auditory memory until enough words are read to create meaning.
Skilled readers recognize most words immediately and automatically without using context. Good readers use context to see if what they are reading makes sense. Context is also important for disambiguating the meaning of some words ("I had a ball throwing the ball at the ball."). Occasionally, readers use context to figure out what the word is. Most of the time, however, words are identified from their familiar spelling and the association of that spelling with a pronunciation. Context comes into play after, not before, the word is identified, as a result of the brain's processing of the letter-by-letter information it receives (Cunningham & Cunningham, 2002; Nicholson & Tan, 1999; Stanovich, 2000).
Skilled readers can accurately and quickly pronounce infrequent, phonetically regular words. When presented with unfamiliar but phonetically regular words—nit, kirn, miracidium—good readers immediately and seemingly effortlessly assign them a pronunciation (Daneman, 1991). This happens so quickly that readers are often unaware that they have not seen the word before and that they had to "figure it out." This effortless decoding involves the reader's accessing known spelling patterns or similar words (Cunningham & Cunningham, 2002).
There has been a long debate on whether to teach phonics by using a synthetic or an analytic approach. A synthetic approach generally teaches children to go letter by letter, assigning a pronunciation to each letter, and then blending the individual letters together. An analytic approach teaches rules (e.g., the e on the end makes the vowel long). Recent research, however, suggests that the brain is a pattern detector and that while we look at single letters we are considering all the letter patterns we know. Successful decoding of a word occurs when the brain recognizes a familiar spelling pattern or, if the pattern itself is not familiar, searches through its store of words with similar patterns (Adams, 1990; Cunningham et al., 1999; Goswami & Bryant, 1990). Skilled decoding, then, involves the use of an analogy strategy.
To decode an unfamiliar word—knob, for example—a child who knows many words that begin with kn would immediately assign to the kn the "n" sound. The initial kn would be stored in the brain as a spelling pattern. A child who knows only a few other words with kn and hasn't read those words very often would probably not have kn as a known spelling pattern and, thus, would have to do a quick search for known words that begin with kn. If the child found the words know and knew and then tried this same sound on the unknown word knob, that child would have used an analogy strategy. Likewise, the child might know the pronunciation for ob because of having correctly read so many words containing the ob pattern (Bob, rob, cob, job, sob). The child who had no stored spelling patterns for kn or ob and no known words to access and compare to would be unlikely to pronounce the unknown word knob successfully.
To summarize the cognitive activities involved in identifying words is to risk oversimplification, but that seems necessary if we want instructional practices to be compatible with what we know about how words are decoded. As we read, we look very quickly at almost all letters of each word. For most words, this visual information is recognized as a familiar pattern with which a spoken word is identified and pronounced (aloud or through internal speech). Words we have read before are instantly recognized as we see them. Words we have not read before are almost instantly pronounced based on spelling patterns encountered in other words. Meaning is accessed through visual word recognition, but the sound of the word supports the visual information and helps to hold the word in memory.
Reading and writing are meaning-constructing activities, but they are dependent on words. All good readers and writers have a store of high-frequency words that they read and spell instantly and automatically. Good readers and writers can also decode and spell most regular words. Decoding and spelling abilities increase in direct proportion to the amount of successful reading and writing children do. Word-fluency activities in classrooms should include lots of writing and easy reading as well as word manipulation and sorting activities designed to help children learn common spelling patterns (Cunningham, 2000; Cunningham & Allington, 2007; White, 2005).
Although the National Reading Panel (NRP) report (2000) garnered much attention, there has been much debate among researchers and practitioners about what the NRP actually found in its meta-analysis of 38 studies on the effects of systematic phonics instruction in beginning reading programs. Here is a short synthesis of what was written in the full report produced by the NRP.
- Systematic phonics instruction in kindergarten and first grade produced a small positive effect on reading growth, most evident in tests assessing word and nonword pronunciation in isolation.
- Comparisons among three methods of teaching decoding (analytic, analogy, other) demonstrated no significant difference. The NRP wrote, "The analysis showed that . . . the three categories of programs did not differ statistically from each other. The conclusion supported by these findings is that various types of phonics instruction are more effective than non-phonic approaches" .
- "Phonics instruction failed to exert a significant impact on the reading performance of low-achieving readers in 2nd through 6th grade". This was the case, perhaps, because limited decoding skills are less often the problem than difficulties with fluency, vocabulary knowledge, and comprehension in older poor readers.
- The NRP also found no evidence supporting the use of decodable texts as a component of phonics instruction.
Good readers are, invariably, good decoders. Children need effective decoding instruction. But, as the NRP so pointedly reminded us, effective decoding is but one of the many skills and proficiencies that effective reading instruction develops in beginning readers. Or, as Hammill and Swanson (in press) point out, even the NRP analyses indicated that 96 percent of the difference in reading achievement was accounted for by factors other than systematic phonics instruction.
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