We need to define our terms:  What exactly are we dealing with when we talk about reading?

Reading is the automatic extraction of meaning when encountering words in text – on a page or on a screen.

That’s what it means to read – as you encounter text, your brain quickly recognizes each letter or groups of letters and retrieves the corresponding sounds. Those sounds are blended together until a word is recognized.  Once recognized, the meaning of the word activates.

As this process matures, larger groups of letters and whole words are rapidly recognized.  Word recognition automatically extracts the meaning associated with those words and rapidly associates the meaning of the word with the meanings of the previous words to establish context at the phrase or sentence level.  This leads to comprehension of the word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, and text level – and beyond.  As mature readers, we actually extract meaning beyond what is on the page through inference, prediction, and interpretation.

In reading, all this must happen fluently, and with automaticity – the processing of the visual, auditory, and linguistic information is near-simultaneous.  It’s not READING until meaning is extracted.

literacy support for children AirdrieReading is a complex, big-picture process.  It is often broken down into smaller or discrete components, often for the purposes of research.  We study things like saccades, the eye movements that are associated with reading.  We look at elements of decoding, such as phonics or phonological awareness.  We examine linguistic structures such as sentence types and complexity of clauses, and the impact on comprehension.

Where children get in trouble is when a reading instruction is approached from this compartmentalized perspective.  For example, you may hear people talk about using comprehension strategies, or helping children acquire increased sentence structures so they can improve comprehension.  This focus attempts to get children more connected to the context.  It is often favoured by those in the “whole language” camp.

However, when a student struggles at the sound level – when they see a letter and cannot quickly and efficiently connect the corresponding sound to it – the whole process of reading is impacted.  When a child is slowed down at the letter or word level, the amount of processing and working memory that is required for reading elevates.

At this point, the context fades – all effort is put into deciphering the word.  That word becomes disconnected from the adjoining word.  Associations fade away.  The child must re-read the sentence to re-establish context.  And each time a tricky letter, letter segment, or word is encountered, the comprehension system grinds to a halt.  The processing and working memory systems cannot work on word identification while also holding the context and meaning together.  The system is impaired at the bottom or feature-level of the system – identifying letters and retrieving the corresponding sound.

Such a student needs help to accurately perceive and identify the spoken sounds of English, and THEN to be able to match those sounds to letters.  This is where we convert speech to print.  This is often where the problem lies in dyslexia.  The student never “gets” to the level of comprehension because they are “trapped” at the bottom end of the system.  A “whole language” approach is NOT going to address this problem!

At the top-end of the system, once all of the words are correctly identified, linguistic processes must associate all of the words to create a cohesive context.  Each of the possible meanings or definitions of each word must be parsed and selected to match the overall context.  The word order or sentence structure must be accounted for to carefully match the intention of the text – for example, word order and clause structure – consider “the dog chased the cat” vs. “the dog was chased by the cat”.  Without adequate linguistic skills including knowledge of vocabulary, morphology (word structure), syntax (sentence structure), discourse, and language processing or association, the big-picture puzzle cannot be assembled, and meaning is only partially extracted or skewed.

Without language comprehension abilities, the appropriate meaning cannot be derived.  If meaning is not extracted, it’s not reading.  If we see adequate decoding skills but impaired comprehension, there is most often an underlying language disorder that has not been addressed.  (This is why assessment is so valuable!!)  A phonics system will have no impact on this child’s reading.  However, equally important to note, explicit instruction on language structure is required to address this; a “whole language” system is also inadequate to teach these children to comprehend.

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Now, with the big picture of reading in mind, we can begin to see the shortcomings of some instructional methods and approaches to helping children read.  We cannot compartmentalize discrete skills because they must work in concert.  We cannot ignore weaknesses in the system just as it would be irresponsible not to leverage areas of skill and strength.  A wholistic model of reading leads to a functional, integrate instructional approach that encompasses all of the necessary skills from speaking to reading – and everything in between.

Want to develop your child’s reading and speaking skills? Book your consultation now!