Monday, October 5, 2020

Word Recognition: To what extent is it "self-taught?"

I taught myself how to decode. No, I was not some precocious early reader who intuited how words work at three and was reading before entering school. And, yes, my first grade teacher. Ms. Rickles, did a very creditable job in teaching me the alphabetic principal and the phonological awareness I needed to get myself started on the road to being a reader. Most of what I learned about the ways words work, however, I learned by reading and I can distinctly remember that happening to me. 

Early in the second grade, my mother enrolled me in the Weekly Reader Book Club. I was thrilled when the package with my first book arrived with my name on it. The book was a Whitman/Golden Book adaptation of  a Disney True Life Adventure documentary series called The Living Desert. The book contained lots to interest a seven-year-old boy and I read it with a vengeance. It was probably a bit above my reading level, but with the help of my understanding of  sound/symbol relationships learned in school, a bit of my own background knowledge, the copious pictures in the book, and some determination, I was able to decode words like iguana, rattlesnake, prairie dog, desolate, tortoise, habitat, evaporation and so forth. Along the way, although I was not aware of it at the time, of course, I was teaching myself the orthographic system of our language. The more I read, the stronger, richer, ad deeper this understanding became.

It has been estimated that there are about 88,500 distinct word families in English. Not even the most heroic of teachers could possibly hope to teach developing readers even a fraction of these spelling patterns. How do we explain how successful readers learn all these patterns? Researcher David Share (1995) hypothesized that readers learn these patterns primarily through the process of successful experiences of "phonologically recoding words." Phonological recoding is the process of translating print to sound. According to Share, this process is a "self-teaching process", which enables the reader to acquire the detailed knowledge of the orthographic structure of the language that is needed for successful reading. The more successful encounters the reader has, the more information is available to recognize new words. As Share puts it, "the process of word recognition will depend primarily on the frequency [with] which a child has been exposed to a particular word, together, of course, with the nature and success of item identification." (p. 155).

The implications are pretty clear. Students need to develop a thorough understanding of the alphabetic principal and phonological awareness (syllables, onset/rime, phonemes) and at the same time they need lots of opportunities to read, so that they can apply this growing knowledge to new and novel constructs. Another implication is that much of this reading must be on the independent level, because the key is "successful interactions."  Children will not have the opportunity to put this self-teaching to work, if they are struggling with the reading. Some challenges are welcome, as opportunities to apply growing decoding skills, but for the most part children should be reading at volume in independent level texts. One exception to this general rule would be when a student shows a particular interest in a topic and that level of engagement motivates the reader to "work through" some challenging passages.

Another implication is worrisome. If much of word recognition is "self-taught" through wide reading, and if this ability to self-teach is dependent on a high level of phonological awareness, then children who struggle with phonological awareness will struggle to build the orthographic lexicon they need for skilled reading. As  Cassano and Dougherty (2018) have observed, this indicates that the Matthew Effect (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer) in literacy can be laid to weakness in phonological awareness and the subsequently fewer opportunities to develop the ability to decode a wide range of orthographic constructs.

Share's insight is, for me, a clear argument for balance in instruction. While most children need instruction that helps them develop phonological awareness, they also need lots of opportunities to apply this learning in real, independent reading situations. Students who struggle to develop the requisite phonological awareness need continued  attention to help in developing that awareness, but also continued opportunities to self-teach through successful encounters with independent and instructional level texts under the guidance of the informed teacher.

Works Cited

Cassano, C.M. and Dougherty, S.M. (2018). Pivotal research in early literacy: foundational studies and current practices. NY: Guilford.

Share, D. L. (1995). Phonological recoding and self-teaching: sine qua non of reading acquisition. Cognition, 55, 151-218.

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