Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Limits of "Sounding It Out"

Second grader Luis is reading aloud to his teacher as part of the "listening in" portion of a guided reading lesson. The story is about a cat who can't make up his mind where to go. Luis reads, "And the cat ran off in a new ..." faced with the word "direction", Luis stops. His teacher prompts him to "sound it out." Luis tries the strategy. "duh, dye, dee."

At this point, as the reading consultant in the room, I jumped in. "Luis",  I prompted, "I want you to think about what is happening in this story and reread the whole sentence. Be sure to say the first letter of that tricky word when you get to it." Luis reads, "And the cat ran off in a new direction." I say, "Does that make sense? Does that look right?" Luis nods. "OK, Luis, let's read that sentence again and move on."

"Sound it out" is the go to strategy for many children when they encounter an unknown word. "Sounding it out" has likely become the go to strategy because teachers and parents consistently encourage children to "sound it out" when they encounter difficulty.

Unfortunately, "sounding it out", while a necessary strategy for a child to have in the decoding arsenal, is often not an efficient or sufficient way to decode a word. In the example above, the r-influnced vowel in "direction" likely caused Luis some difficulties in "sounding it out." We would better serve children to teach them to flexibly apply multiple strategies to decoding a novel word. Decoding a new word is best seen, I believe, as a problem solving activity and young readers need to use all the tools at their disposal to solve the problem.

Skilled and relatively automatic decoding is necessary for reading, but we must not narrowly define decoding as the ability to match sounds to letters. In fact, skilled decoders use not only the visual information (phonics) in decoding a word, but also use their knowledge of English to say a word that sounds right and their knowledge of the story to decide what word would make sense.

Let me give you an example:

How would you complete this sentence:

The boy studied for the big test all ___________.

Chances are you have generated words like the following: day, night, evening, afternoon, morning, week.

Notice that all the words generated were nouns. All native and proficient speakers of English know that a noun will come in this place in the sentence because this is standard English syntax. Only a noun will "sound right."

Notice also that all the words you generated to end this sentence are nouns of time. Because we expect English to "make sense" we use our semantic understanding of the language to predict a meaningful word for the context.

Now suppose that I showed the sentence this way:

The boy studied for the big test all n__________.

Immediately you are likely to say "night", because it looks right, sounds right and makes sense. Notice also that if you tried "sounding out" this word, you would run into trouble because the "gh" is silent. Again "sounding out" is a useful, but not sufficient tool for the developing reader.

When I prompt students at points of difficulty, I try to keep these three cues in mind and prompt them accordingly. I want students to understand that their knowledge of English can aid them in decoding. I want them to know that their understanding of the story can aid them in decoding. I want them to know that their ability to "sound out" can aid them in decoding. Most of all I want them to use these three cues flexibly to solve problems as they are reading.

The way we help students at point of difficulty matters. If we ask students repeatedly to "sound it out", students will focus on a narrow strategy. If we appropriately prompt them by saying "What would make sense?" or "Read that again and make it sound right?", we can help them develop the more flexible approach to decoding.

For a complete list of prompts to use with children at the point of difficulty I recommend the list from Fountas and Pinnell's seminal work, Guided Reading.