PHONICS TALK: The Dorbooks Newsletter
Vol. 76 - February 2016
by Dolores G. Hiskes
COMMON ROADBLOCKS TO READING (PART 3)
This issue completes our three-part series on Common Roadblocks
to Reading. Part One discussed *Comprehension*, Part Two
described *Reversals.* This newsletter will feature *Constructing
or Extracting Meaning?*
CONSTRUCTING OR EXTRACTING MEANING?
*Which came first: the chicken or the egg?* might have been a more
apt title for this newsletter, because there is a great deal of discussion
and controversy about HOW we should begin to read — whether we
should first put meaning INTO what we are reading, or first extract
meaning from WHAT we are reading. This newsletter will hopefully
provide some clarification.
Here is the current Merck’s Manual definition of dyslexia: *Dyslexia
occurs when the brain has difficulty making the connection between
sounds and symbols (letters). Phonologic processing problems
cause deficits in discrimination, blending, memory, and analysis of
sounds . . . Children with phonologic processing problems often
have difficulty blending sounds, rhyming words, identifying the
positions of sounds in words, and segmenting words into
pronounceable components. . . Substituting words is often an
early sign. . . *
Since today’s reading programs for the most part do not teach
students individual letter/sound correspondences, how can they
be expected to hear the sounds comprising the word? And if
first-grade students are encouraged to substitute words for those
they cannot read, such as *pony* for *horse,* are they not being
trained to do the very thing that experts define as dyslexic —
A puzzling trend has emerged in recent years — by 3rd or 4th
grade comprehension scores begin to plummet. It is so prevalent
that educators have called it “The Fourth-Grade Slump.”
Beginning readers in most school reading programs are only 50%
decodable at best. (*Decodable* means reading practice that is
only based on sounds learned so far.)
In the early grades the stories are very simple, with many picture
clues to help students guess accurately at the words they don’t know.
As reading progresses, beginning and ending letter sounds are
given to help make students better guessers. Frequently students
are told to choose another word that seems to have the meaning
they are looking for.
But by 3rd or 4th grade the stories are more complex, and there
are no more picture clues. By now guessing is an unconscious and
automatic habit, and the more complex the reading the more
frequent, wild and erroneous the guessing. Here is an example of
a word that is only 50% decodable:
*The b – – d is very loud.*
Hmmmmmm . . . could it be *band?* Or maybe *bird*? Or possibly
All three words begin and end with the same letters, and could
easily fit within the context of the sentence. But how would this
help us comprehend the meaning of the sentence?
If students are trained to guess and substitute words they are
putting meaning INTO a story, rather than extracting meaning
FROM a story. And as we have just seen, even misreading only
one or two words on a page can change the entire meaning of
But does this really happen?
The New York Times had an article about how pharmacists are
increasingly mixing up prescriptions such as *chlorpromazine*
(an antipsychotic) and *chlorpropamide* (lowers blood pressure)
with sometimes tragic results. (NYTimes, 6-3-99)
Illiteracy is a major drain on our whole economy, and is a national
disaster. It’s so important to extract meaning FROM a story, and
not put your own meaning INTO it!
A customer wrote to me wondering if *teaching phonics makes
pupils engage in the decoding skill rather than constructing
meaning from what they are reading, and they then encounter
problems of comprehension because they pay much more
attention to decoding words, so the ultimate goal of reading
is being lost.*
Comprehension, of course, is the whole purpose of reading.
But how on earth can you comprehend something without first
being able to read it accurately?
HOW SHOULD WE TEACH READING?
Learning how to read is similar to learning how to play the piano.
A concert pianist seems to sight-read whole blocks of notes at a
time, playing with great joy and meaning, but:
(1) The keyboard was first learned one note at a time,
(2) Scales and notes were practiced until the knowledge was
(3) Fluency was slowly developed by playing simple melodies,
and gradually more complex music.
(4) Only then was she able to shift her focus to the meaning
and nuance of the songs because the keyboard knowledge
was automatic in recall.
It’s the same thing with reading:
(1) Letters and sounds are learned one at a time.
(2) Reading is practiced with simple syllables and words until
this knowledge is automatic.
(3) Accuracy and fluency are slowly developed by decodable
reading practice that gradually increases in complexity.
(4) Only then can we shift our focus to the meaning and nuance
of what we are reading because the letter/sound knowledge is
automatic in recall.
Human attention is limited: it cannot focus on the meaning of
something AT THE SAME TIME it is trying to determine what
that something says!
My students who had been diagnosed as dyslexic no long
exhibited any signs of reversal or confusion once they learned
how to read properly. It is my experience that if bad training can
contribute to dyslexia, then good training can help overcome it.
For example, Llowell School District in Whittier, CA implemented
Phonics Pathways with all of their Title I students. At midyear
comprehension scores for 3rd grade went up an average of 26
national percentile points, 4th grade 17 points, 5th grade 8
points, and 6th grade 22 points. Bettina Dunne, the reading
*Phonics Pathways is an invaluable aid to teaching phonics.
It requires little or no preparation time and is appropriate for
all grade levels. It does not teach comprehension but it unlocks
the secrets of sound/symbol relationships allowing
comprehension to become the focus. Students, now able to
read words, can meet reading at its most vital level — they
can read for meaning!*
SPECIAL THOUGHT FOR THE DAY
*People are like stained glass windows. They sparkle and shine
when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true
beauty is revealed only if there is a light within.*
A kindergarten teacher was observing her classroom of children
while they drew. She would occasionally walk around to see each
child’s work. As she got to one little girl who was working diligently,
she asked what the drawing was.
The girl replied, “I’m drawing God.”
The teacher paused and said, “But no one knows what God looks
Without missing a beat, or looking up from her drawing, the girl
replied, “They will in a minute.”
Would that we all could have that kind of faith, confidence, and
optimism! On that upbeat note, I’ll close for now. Take good care,
and stay well!
Copyright Dolores G. Hiskes 2016
May be reprinted in entirety with reference to author
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