Saturday, March 28, 2015

Decode This: Meaning Helps Kids Break the Code

Last night I watched the Academy Award winning movie The Imitation Game, which recounts the story of how a group of British mathematicians and cryptographers, led by the enigmatic genius Alan Turing, broke the Nazi “Enigma” code for transmitting military messages and by doing so shortened World War II by two years saving millions of lives.

The story is a compelling one, not only as a sort of detective story, but also as a very human story of perseverance, passion, heroism and broken lives. As a literacy specialist, though, one message from the film jumped out in bas relief. The elusive code was broken only when the codebreakers realized that the messages followed a discernible pattern. Once the pattern was discovered, in this case the Nazi habit of sending a 6 AM weather report each day and ending each message with “Heil Hitler”, the rudimentary computer that Turing designed was able to generalize to a complete translation of the code. This is essentially what our 5 and 6 year old children do every day – generalize from a few known meaningful elements to break the alphabetic code and come to be fluent readers.

I bolded the word “meaningful” above, because I wish to emphasize that it is meaningful encounters with print that allows children to learn to decode. It is not enough to teach children to match letters to sounds in abstract “phonics” lessons. In order to activate the skilled “code breaking” abilities that all children have, we must present the code in the context of meaningful language. Children learn to speak by encountering oral language in real world contexts, so to will they learn to decode when they are presented with meaningful reading contexts.

Let me be clear about this. I am not saying that children don’t need instruction in phonics. I am saying that the best phonics instruction is embedded in meaningful language interactions, because these meaningful language interactions allow students to generalize the rules of how language works. The influential literacy researcher, blogger and emeritus professor Tim Shanahan puts it this way:

            Learning to read is a multidimensional pursuit. Lots of things have to happen simultaneously. That’s why in my scheme teachers are always teaching words (decoding and meaning), fluency, comprehension, and writing—not one after the other but simultaneously. Kids who are learning to decode should also be learning the cadences of text and how to think about what they read. All at the same time.

Regular readers of this blog know that Shanahan and I don’t always agree, but we are in agreement here. Of course, doing all this instruction “at the same time” is a daunting task for the teacher. What does this instruction look like? Here are a few ideas.

The Name Chart – A Name Chart is simply a chart listing the first names of every child in the class in alphabetical order that is hung in the classroom where every child can see it. Since children are highly motivated to learn the names of their classmates, the name chart becomes a good place for children to make connections about beginning consonant sounds in words. During a shared reading or writing experience, teachers can refer children to the name chart to help students decode a word. For example, if the students encounter the word “shout” in their reading, the teacher can help them decode the word by pointing to the name chart to show that “shout” starts the same as their classmate’s name “Shannon.”

Interactive Writing – Interactive writing or shared pen is a language activity that involves the teacher and children in constructing meaningful messages, while also working on sound symbol relationships. At a “Morning Meeting” or following a class read aloud the teacher leads the children in a writing activity on chart paper for all to see. The teacher does the bulk of the writing, but shares the pen with students who get to practice their growing phonics knowledge by matching the sounds of the words they wish to write with the letters needed to write it. For more on interactive writing see Reading Rockets here.

Shared Reading – In shared reading teachers use a “big book” or poem written on chart paper to lead the children in reading. Children join in the reading with the teacher’s support and the structure allows the teacher to provide instruction in decoding words in a real language context. Reading Rockets has a good description of Shared Reading here.

Cut Up Sentences – Children can practice their growing phonics understanding and sight words through cut up sentences. With teacher assistance, students generate a sentence based on a story they have read or an experience they have had. The teacher (or students) writes the sentence on a sentence strip and reads it with the student. The teacher then cuts up the sentence into separate words and the students are challenged to put it back together. Again a meaningful context forms the basis of a decoding lesson.

Prompting at Point of Difficulty – I have written in an earlier post about the limits of “sounding it out” as a strategy when students encounter difficulty while reading a word in a story. Since decoding depends not just on phonics, but also on the structure of language and the meaning of the story, skilled teachers use prompts like “Does that sound right?” Does that make sense?” and “Does that look right?” to help students coordinate all the cues available to them as they try to decode a novel word.

Word Families – Many words are best understood not as a series of individual letters to be “sounded out”, but as groupings of letters to be thought of as a whole. Research has shown that students can discern these patterns and use them for more efficient decoding. Word families like –ight words are best taught as families with an onset and rime. The word “flight” is made up of the onset “fl” and the rime “ight.” Teaching students to look for these patterns and use words that they already know to generalize to words with like patterns makes decoding more efficient and reading more fluent.

Think Aloud – Often just talking about words and the strategies that skilled readers use to decode can be helpful to students. I like to use think alouds when talking about particularly knotty problems in decoding such as silent letters. Students who over-rely on “sounding it out” may encounter difficulty with a word like “sign.” I like to “think aloud” with the students here. Suppose the students encounter the sentence, “Mom put her finger to her mouth and gave me the sign to be quiet.” In this context I would talk about how the word “sign” comes from the word “signal” and that in English spelling we often keep letters that are silent to help us understand the meaning. So while the letter “g” in “sign” is silent, it is still helpful because it reminds us that this word means something like “signal.” Sharing knowledge and insights about words can help children not only comprehend, but also decode.

Like the cryptographers in The Imitation Game, children have a problem to solve when they encounter new and novel words. The best way to help them solve the problem is to provide instruction that is both targeted and in a meaningful context.