The important first step


I read the following tweets this morning which prompted me to write this post.

Regie Routman @regieroutman Mar 3

Explicit, systematic teaching of letters & sounds—decoding-- is necessary but insufficient for becoming a reader, one who chooses to read (mostly) books & who comprehends, self-monitors & finds joy in becoming a discerning reader. We have known this for decades.

suzy yates @bubbletroublex7 Replying to @regieroutman

I have been reading your books since I discovered Transitions in the 90s. My district is now following the science of reading. I don’t see kids reading books.
Heartbreaking. Decoding only is, imo, not going to develop lifelong readers. Have you written any articles about this?

A retweet of the above with the following by: Regie Routman @regieroutman on 22.5.2022 (Malaysian time)

SoR is needlessly a fraught topic. Teaching kids to read is not either-or. Becoming a reader requires decoding AND fluency AND attention to comprehension AND lots of reading of self-chosen books.

Many Tweeters keep saying the same thing. Recently Dr. Sam Bommarito kept insisting that I should teach comprehension together with decoding. A few years ago Pamela Snow said it is not only decoding but comprehension, vocabulary and fluency and blocked me from Twitter.

Yes, I agree with Regie Routman that reading to understand requires attention to comprehension and fluency but before these two, a child needs to first learn to decode.

What was the problem with all the kids I have taught since 2004? When I read to them they had no comprehension problem. Their problem with ‘reading’ was decoding.

We should therefore ask ourselves why these smart kids were/are unable to decode before we talk about comprehension and fluency. As mentioned several times in my blog, decoding is the first step in the journey towards reading with understanding. If you want to travel north but you go south, then your first step  is already wrong.   We don’t have to dwell on the subsequent steps of comprehension, fluency etc. when the first step is wrong. Get the decoding right; then talk about the rest.

I have observed the dyslexic kids that I taught since 2004 and I have interviewed them, and listed the reasons why they were unable to decode. LINK

And, I found that if, after a few lessons, my students decoded with difficulty they were unable to answer even one question on comprehension because they were not reading fluently. However, when I read to them they could answer all questions with ease.

And the reason is obvious. The students were spending all their time and energy on decoding. If they had mastered decoding, then reading is easy. And they will understand what they read.

Mind you, we are talking about kids who can speak very well, who understand words spoken to them. They only do not know how to decode the printed word.

So the first hurdle is decoding.

So, why are people like Dr. Sam Bommarito and Pamela Snow harping on comprehension.

Why was Alanna’s son unable to decode even after one year of Structured Synthetic Phonics via a scripted programme? LINK

Why was my current student unable to decode? What has comprehension got to do with him being unable to decode? LINK

What Dr. Sam and his supporters need to understand is why kids disengage from learning to decode.

A Tamil proverb says that testing one grain of rice in a cooked pot of rice is sufficient to tell us if the whole pot of rice is cooked and yet educators say that having taught 70 kids is not big enough a sample.

Readers should ask:

i.                    How I confidently said that I could teach Alanna’s son simply by listening to him sounding out the sounds represented by the consonants. Of course I had asked Alanna if her son had any acuity problems before assuring her that I will get her son to read.

ii.                  How I dared to tell my readers that I will be able to teach Jack to read within 4 months after listening to him sounding out the sounds represented by consonants. Bear in mind that he was unable to read a single sentence when I first met him.

Let’s not forget that the great teacher Seigfried Engelmann (may he rest in peace) said that he was unable to teach only a fraction of 1% of kids to read.