This blog is about the relationship between decoding and meaning in reading. There will be no attempt to undermine or insult anyone who believes that children should be taught to focus more on one or the other. I have read a lot of research about reading, but I won’t quote it here. I might not quote any Greek philosophers either, sorry. There is research about reading and there is research about learning to read. I’ve read lots of both. I’ve acted on some of it. I write what I write here based on teaching my own children to read before I began teacher training; my training as a class teacher, and my special training as a specialist teacher of reading including the teaching of phonics, systematically. I write what I write also, mainly, because I have sat all day every day for the last 10 years next to struggling readers and beginner readers, listening to them (or their silence), watching them, working out how to help them, working with them to make sense of their books. Every child in those 10 years was different. My own children learned differently from each other too. Corny progressive quote alert: The children taught me everything I know about teaching.
Word to meaning is a 2 way process – like Frank Smith et al were saying in the 70s. We can get to meaning via words, yes. But we can get to words via meaning. The interplay backwards and forwards between words and meaning is what reading is.
Many academics keep trying to find how ‘best’ to get from words to meaning, and to get to the words themselves, to write schemes for children to learn from, but they tend to ignore what the child does. Reading is not a thing at all until someone does it. The child brings everything they know about meaning – and they do know a lot, because looking for meaning, working out how the world works has been a child’s main preoccupation since before the day she was born – to bear on the words. Words do not enter the brain through the eyes and then have something done to them by the brain as if the child’s intentionality, agency, has nothing to do with it. If you don’t believe me that they can not just decode without the words having any meaning, try doing the opposite. Try reading this without picking up any of its meaning. It’s not possible, is it?
Beginner readers seem to do a bit of decoding and a bit of meaning-gathering, or a bit of meaning-gathering and a bit of decoding, each separately, one after the other. With practice, they seem to get quicker and quicker at both, so that the two no longer seem separate. Words and meaning in reading are never quite separate, even for absolute beginners. They don’t learn one thing and then replace it with another. That’s not how reading works. If we teach them one thing and then teach another, we have taught them two things. They learn decoding and meaning together, one thing, reading – no matter what we imagine we are teaching them. There is not a single thing in a child’s life that does not have meaning for them or that they will not desire to understand. Not one. We don’t need to be frightened that we will confuse children by offering them new things – like written letters and words – along with opportunities for them to also have meaning for the child. If we show a child a written letter, and tell them it’s a /s/ , the child will actively attach meaning to the experience. The meaning they attach might be ‘That’s a /s/‘ or ‘She’s showing me this and she seems to think it’s important’, or all sorts of other meanings. But show the child /s/ a few more times and introduce some other letters, and the child will start to put them into sets of meanings. I am trying to say that we don’t need to show children all the phenomena in the world and then try to explain what they mean. We don’t need to work out an order of when to show children every state of affairs. We don’t need to do this with aspects of reading either. We don’t need to worry that children can’t cope with complexity. We can’t control every aspect of a child’s world. Babies are born into the complex world they live in and they are adapted to learn to cope with its natural complexity. Babies are not born adapted simply, to live in non-complex environments. They can’t survive in non-complex environments – think desert? antarctica? Children need complexity. We don’t need to break down all words into what we think are their constituent parts and feed all those parts to children one by one. We can do this if we like, if we and they enjoy it, but it is not absolutely necessary. Once they start to get the hang of what we want when we show them things, once they have started to make their little sets of things that go together because they share meanings, children will start to add to those sets independently, linking sets to other sets, often faster than we can do the showing. At school, children have to learn to slow themselves down, to stop filling up their meaning sets in their own ways, and focus on the sets their teachers want them to fill up.
New things and their meanings are meat and gravy to little kids, 24/7. It’s adults who get in a state about it all, because we have (usually) long forgotten a time when phenomena and their meanings seemed separate or needed some fundamental puzzling.
Adults getting in a bit of a state about what to do with concepts we think children need to understand but we’re not sure yet what they can cope with, could be a definition of ‘Teachers’. It’s no coincidence that we are intrigued by the feelings we get when we know we can pat our heads and rub our bellies at the same time. It’s counter-intuitive. We teach ourselves to do it. It makes us smile.
But some children don’t learn to read as quickly as others I hear you say. What shall we do about it? Shall we try and work out what has happened in their endeavours to make their internal sets? Have they not made any reading sets or not made enough yet, for some reason? Have they created some sets that are not at all useful for reading? Maybe they need to work on their letter sets? Maybe they need to be more proactive in their search for meaning for a while, or know more about where to look? There will not be a size that fits every child. There certainly will not be some as yet unthought of method that regular-pace learners have never used.
In her books about writing (Wired for Story; Story Genius) Lisa Cron tells us that readers are constantly looking for meaning; if we don’t give them meaning, they will make up their own. She also tells us that if readers are given too much, unnecessary elements, they will get annoyed, sensing that their intelligence has been insulted.
You know films of old steam trains where the long piston rod on the outside of the wheels starts off going really slowly up and down and round and round and then gets faster and faster so that you can’t see whether it’s going up and down or round and round, it’s just a blur of motion that’s making the train move? Learning to read is similar. You can’t separate the up and down from the round and round. We can’t separate meaning from decoding. Anything that looks like just making meaning (eg talking about the pictures) or just decoding (eg staccato sounding out one word at a time) isn’t reading, just like if the train piston moved only up and down or only round and round, the train would not go anywhere. If the train wasn’t going anywhere, would we try and push it to a slope and let it roll downhill for a bit? Or would we call in the engineers to get the piston rods working, up and down, round and round? I’d like to ask a selection of steam train engineers to list all the train-stopping problems they knew, and how they sorted them out. I’ll bet no two were exactly the same.