Words without meaning (www.freepik.com).
by Steve Timmer
Apr 13, 2023, 11:00 AM

Franz Kafka teaches reading

The Read Act proposes to inflict structured phonics on every grade schooler, and lots of middle schoolers and high schoolers in the state. That’s what the chief author of the bill in the House wants. Although I admit I am not entirely sure what “basing it off of” means.

Edelson quote about the Read Act

I’ve written several stories about the “science of reading,” the Read Act, and structured phonics literacy instruction and rather assumed that everyone knew what I was talking about. Perhaps that was a mistake. Structured literacy is about first, foremost, and just about exclusively, “decoding” words.

It’s a little like singing in Latin in high school choir; you can pronounce the words – sort of – but you – and even the Catholic kids – have little or no idea of their meaning. Here’s what “structured literacy” is all about:

The main reason why nonsense words are essential to assessing [emphasis added] phonics and decoding is because students cannot say/decode the word without understanding the phonics skills within the word.

Lack of Context

There are two parts to truly reading a word. Decoding a word (or sounding it out) and understanding a word (making meaning).

When a student is reading words in context, (like a sentence, passage, or story), the context can often help them understand what the word means. [In the law of evidence, we call this an admission. Ed.]

It can also help them make an educated guess as to what the word is. [Ditto.]

We sure don’t want to tip the little buggers off, do we?

Update 11/8: Figuring out what a word means from its context is what Professor George Hruby calls “probability-informed inference,” and it is an important reading skill.

What are nonsense words? Words like kut, dak, som, han, vokl, jife or shat. (I guess that last one is a word.) If you want to assess kids multiple times a year and see how they’re coming in the dreary business of decoding things without meaning, these words are perfect. It’s very easy to add up the score and see whether little Johnny or Janie is a success, or failure, or making progress. Or maybe just giving up on their teacher, Mr. Kafka, for putting them through this.

It is partly why the assessment industry loves phonics. It’s like counting up the times a pigeon pecks the right key. You can make a lot of money doing this.

It only works, of course, for nonsense words that obey pronunciation conventions. As we know, real English words are notoriously bad at doing that.

The phonics champions are really serious about keeping meaning out of it. The Read Act bill prohibits the use of the three-cueing method in teaching literacy. In prohibiting it, the bill had to define it.

Three-cueing definition in the Read Act

The three cues are phonics, grammar or syntax, and meaning. You cannot read with comprehension without all three of them.

Even the phonic champion quoted above acknowledges that there are two parts to reading a word: decoding it and knowing what it means, or, pronouncing it and comprehending it. To me, comprehension is the greater part.

When you were kids, did you ever read a book and encounter a word you didn’t recognize, but figured out what it meant from the context, and then went on, only later to realize when somebody said the word that you had understood it but had mispronounced it in your head? Verboten! This is a great sin to the phonics people, but I’ll take the comprehension and a strategy to get it any day.

It is unbelievable to me, really, that we’d abuse children like this just to be able to assess them more easily, and want to spend some $75 million [it wound up closer to $110 million, Ed] to do it. It’s authoritarian and sadistic but well-calculated to turn young readers off from the pleasure of reading. I’ll end with an imaginary dialog I’ve used before.

Mother, why can’t my school have band or theater?

Sweetie, when you say “Mother,” you shouldn’t end it with a hard “R” sound; it should be more of a schwa sound. You’re learning that in school, aren’t you?

– o O o –

Update: Here’s an observation about recitation vs. comprehension from somebody at ground zero.

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