While my son Kevin was attending Grade 1, his teacher called me in for a special meeting. I was puzzled. What did she need to tell me? What had gone wrong?
When we met, she explained that Kevin had been looking over her shoulder recently as she read a book aimed at adults. “I can read that,” he announced. The teacher didn’t believe it. After he read what she had been reading, she still could not believe it!
I think that he was able to read her book because before he enrolled in school his grandmother had diligently taught him some of the basic orthographic principles, the connections, in other words, between how words are said and how they are written.
So, by Grade 1, Kevin had three strategies at his disposal. He could
- identify unfamiliar written words, using the orthographic principles that he knew at that time. (Strategy 1)
- recognize, immediately, frequently occurring words, without sounding them out. (Strategy 2)
- by using the context of selections as a guide, he could often guess the identity of unfamiliar words that he could not yet fully change to spoken language, (Strategy 3)
So, for the most part, he was able to translate what his teacher was reading into spoken language.
When students first come to me for instruction, things look quite a bit different.
- They use Strategy 2. They read by recalling words that they had previously memorized as wholes, without orthographic analysis and synthesis. I asked Parker, one of my Grade 4 students, how he memorized the words he was instructed to remember. He told me that he wrote each word again and again, trying to memorize the names of the letters in each word. As a result, even though he uses English speech sounds every day while talking and listening, he did not know how to match these speech sounds with the letters and/or groups of letters of our alphabet. (He knows how to do it now!)
- They cannot use Strategy 1, because they don’t know how to identify unfamiliar written words independently.
- They cannot use Strategy 3, unless the selection they are reading contains enough memorized words to enable them to use context as a guide.
Asked to read, they sometimes succeed. How do they feel when they try to identify a word they had not previously memorized? They feel Stumped!
I know a bright little girl who’s in Grade 3. One day, while reading a story, she tried to translate an easily decodable word into spoken language. She thought… and thought… and thought…
Finally, in exasperation, she exclaimed, “I have never seen this word in my whole life!”
If only she had been able to use Strategy 1!