In recent times, social commentator and writer Jane Caro has weighed in again on Twitter about reading instruction. This provides an opportunity to address a common misconception illustrated by one of her most recent (Jan 6, 2023) tweets, as it offers a valuable teachable moment for those keen to understand the role of high-quality phonics instruction for beginning readers:
Jane’s reference to the “obsession with phonics” is unfortunate in my opinion, but seems representative of a tone she adopts when engaging on Twitter with teachers and other professionals who advocate for explicit and systematic teaching of how the English writing system works. It seems that if people advocate consistently and from a position of evidence and experience, they are “obsessed”, but I have not seen Jane using such language in relation to advocates for more equitable school funding or for climate change action. This is important, because it reflects an underlying cognitive bias that may be more obvious to others than it is to Jane herself.
Jane is impressed that her grandson is “sounding out words he did not know”. Wow indeed! That means her grandson has been taught the transferable skill of decoding – of lifting a previously unseen word off the page – and importantly “words he did not know”. This could either mean he had not seen them written down before, did not have them in his oral language vocabulary, or perhaps both – Jane did not specify and that’s fine, tweets have limited character lengths.
We can turn to two well-established theoretical frameworks and one more recent publication here to understand what is going on for Jane’s grandson, and for ten of thousands of other beginning readers.
The Simple View of Reading reminds us that reading comprehension (RC) is the product (not sum) of two connected processes: word identification/ decoding (D) and language comprehension (LC). It can be represented thus:
RC = D x LC
Because the operator in this formula is a multiplication sign, we are reminded that if the value on either side is zero, then the product will be zero. So, if Jane’s grandson had strong oral language skills but no decoding skills for those unfamiliar words, his reading comprehension score would be at or close to zero. (Children sometimes recognise a few key words from environmental print exposure in the pre-school years but cannot necessarily decode them if they see them in isolation or in a another context).
Let’s try inserting some numbers into the formula to make this clearer.
Imagine we assessed a 6-year old’s decoding skills and her oral language skills,
and the scores were as follows: decoding: 4/10; language comprehension: 10/10.
This gives our 6-year-old an overall reading score of 40/100 which I think most
would agree is not sufficient for reading to be a motivating, let alone a
meaning-based activity. The same outcome would occur, but for different
reasons, if the scores were inverted; we would have a child who could get
text off the page but lacked the oral language skills to make sense of what has
been decoded. This is a less common phenomenon for beginning readers, but is how I function several
decades on after learning French at school. I can still decode words written in
French because I remember most of what I learnt about how the French writing
system works, but I have forgotten much of my vocabulary and grammar, so it is much
harder for me to extract meaning from the text.
So beginning readers need to develop skills on both sides of the Simple View of Reading formula, and they need to (i) understand that writing is a code, (ii) know how to crack the code, (iii) store representations of how speech and print map to each other in their longterm memories, and (iv) be able to make sense of what they are reading by drawing on prior knowledge and oral language skills (which, by the way, have a giant head-start on reading, as these have been developing since birth, because they are biologically primary skills). Reading is a biologically secondary skill and so requires formal instruction, in the same way that learning algebra and learning to play a musical instrument do. I’ll unpack these terms further below.
A second well-established framework that helps us here is the Scarborough Reading Rope. This info-graphic teases out the elements of the Simple View of Reading in more detail, so teachers, parents, and other professionals can focus on the sub-skills that need to be developed over time (Scarborough herself later commented that the graphic should have had a right-pointing arrow underneath it, representing time).
The Reading Rope shows us that Jane’s grandson was demonstrating emergent skills in the lower half of the rope – those skills that are biologically secondary or unnatural. As readers who are familiar with the Reading Rope will know, these skills are not well-integrated with the upper half of the rope for being readers; we need to isolate and teach these skills so that over time, they become more automatic and require less conscious effort. Conscious effort taxes working memory and creates cognitive load. It is completely understandable, therefore, that in the early stages of learning to read, children read in a way that is slow and faltering, with visible effort going into getting the words off the page. Systematic and explicit teaching of how the writing code works focuses on automaticity so that children’s cognitive capacity can be directed as soon as possible to the meaning of the text.
If we assume we are talking about a typically-developing 6-year-old then his oral language skills allow him to formulate and understand complex messages as a result of biologically primary (natural) skills that have been developing since birth, as represented in the top half of the rope. Let’s take these terms biologically primary and biologically secondary and consider them separately.
When we say (a la David Geary) that a skill is biologically primary, we mean that at a population level, it is going to emerge as a result of human evolution and typical experience. So here we are thinking of skills such as oral language, walking, turn-taking, and recognition of facial expressions. Biologically secondary skills are those that our brains have not evolved to sort out of their own accord but can be taught to do. Here we are dealing with skills that have social, cultural and academic capital, such as learning a musical instrument and playing chess, but are not going to be seamlessly learnt in the absence of formal instruction; instruction that in some cases needs to occur over many years, which is part of the reason that formal schooling begins around age 5 and continues to around age 17.
Finally, we can look to the 2021 publication by Nancy Lewis
reading comprehension blueprint. In this text, Hennessy addresses the
fact that comprehension is a process, not a unitary event. She uses the
analogy of a factory assembly line to remind us of the individual components (word identification, knowing word meanings, sentence-level comprehension, text-level comprehension, and background knowledge) that must be
in place for reading comprehension to occur, particularly once text complexity
increases from the middle years of primary school onwards. Addressing decoding/word identification is a necessary but not sufficient part of ensuring that reading comprehension occurs.
You can see below, an info-graphic that I have created to represent Hennessy’s analogy. What we can see in relation to Jane’s grandson is that he has made promising progress on the biologically secondary skill of decoding the text (hat-tip to him and his teachers), but some of the words he is reading may be beyond his oral language vocabulary (Jane hinted at this in her tweet), and/or he may not have the background knowledge to make sense of the messages that people write on cards that they send with parcels (and at age 6 we would not assume such life experience).
When people seek to diminish the role of effective phonics instruction, they (unwittingly perhaps) sweep aside the richness and importance of what is happening below the level of the written word in English. Word parts in English encode both meaning (via morphemes) and sound (via phonemes) and teachers who adopt a structured, explicit approach to reading instruction (as opposed to using so-called “balanced literacy” – see here for more detail about this distinction) introduce these elements with a scope and sequence to support the learning and academic success of all students. High-quality phonics instruction then, provides a gateway to meaning and turns closed doors into corridors of power (to channel my almost namesake, C.P. Snow).
So, what’s the bottom line here? Once again, it is simply that reading is a complex, biologically secondary skill that draws on a range of equally complex sub-skills. Some of these sub-skills are biologically primary (like the development of oral language) and others are not (like learning to master the writing code that a child must operate in). I should stress that while oral language skills are biologically primary, they are not “set and forget”, and much focus is required in the school years on the ongoing development of vocabulary, and mastery of syntactic conventions as ways of representing meaning.
Let’s celebrate the visible wins of our 6-year-olds as they embark on one of the most important, life-changing, and often challenging journeys of their lives: becoming a proficient reader. In so doing, we need to remember that the road from novice to expert is a long, winding one, just as it is when a child is learning a musical instrument, or later on when they are learning to drive.
We don’t expect overnight proficiency in other complex life skills, so why would we treat reading any differently?
Personal experience is a powerful, but not always reliable influence on how we think about complex topics like reading proficiency. I also have a grandson who has just completed Grade 1, and I engage with his reading (and other) progress with much interest, both as a grandmother and as a reading researcher. However, I do not base my publicly-facing comments about reading instruction on one-off observations of his reading performance. That’s probably a good thing.
(C) Pamela Snow (2023)