For some people, learning to read and write seems natural, goes smoothly, and leads to successful experiences. Reading often becomes a pleasurable pastime. For others, learning to read and write well is a challenge that leaves them feeling frustrated and school becomes a dreaded daily event. Here are some explanations for common literacy concerns.
Adults Learning to Read and Write
There are lots of reasons why adults might not have strong reading and writing skills. The reasons don’t matter as much as the results. Sometimes the result of that weakness is a feeling of disappointment or embarrassment. There may be a feeling of regret if a person thinks they might have been able to do more in life with a better education. Other times, adults don’t have negative feelings about their reading and writing, but they still have a desire to strengthen their skills. Adults with a desire to improve their literacy skills, for whatever reason, have strong motivation to succeed. That kind of motivation along with excellent instruction in word identification, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing can result in very good progress in becoming a better reader or writer.
The Role of Phonics in Learning to Read
Phonics is a strategy for figuring out unknown words. It begins with knowing the letters and their sounds but it doesn’t end there. The reader has to understand how to use the sounds to figure out the words. Sometimes a reader can name the letters and match them with sounds, but doesn’t use that knowledge to figure out words. A grade may be good because it is based on exercises that only require the reader to know the letters and sounds, not actually read words. Phonics has to be taught as a strategy that includes (1) knowing letters, (2) knowing sounds, and (3) knowing how to blend the sounds together to figure out words. Without #3, 1 and 2 are useless. The last, most important step in using phonics successfully, is to read real text with lots of words in sentences and paragraphs.
The Relationship Between Comprehension and Vocabulary
If there are three important words in a sentence that you don’t understand, there’s not much chance you are going to understand the sentence. Seems logical. You can’t understand sentences with unfamiliar words. So a person with a weak vocabulary may have difficulty understanding what she reads or hears. On the other hand, someone with a strong vocabulary will have more success reading and comprehending difficult material. The added benefit of a good vocabulary is that the reader is able to read more, encountering even more new words and further building her vocabulary. The strong vocabulary then further helps with writing and comprehension.
When Pleasure Reading and School Reading Look Different
If a student is successfully reading and enjoying short chapter books, he is clearly making progress as a reader. There could be a few different explanations about why this child is earning mediocre grades in school. First, it is possible that he is actually reading above grade level and is withdrawing or not fully participating because he is bored. A second possibility is that since he has some very specific literary interests, maybe he disengages from the materials he is required to read in class because they are uninteresting. A third explanation might relate to the type of tasks that make up a student’s grades and the way the school defines “reading”. Although a student is a good reader, his grade may be based on tests of fragmented skills that don’t reflect real reading.
Why is Comprehension Difficult?
Comprehension means understanding, but understanding what you read isn’t so simple. Before you can understand, you have to figure out what the words say. Then, you have to figure out what the words mean. Then you have to parse the words into meaningful phrases as you read, the way the author meant for you to read it. BUT, you come to the reading with your own background knowledge, experiences, and opinions and that will influence the way that you understand the author’s words. The author will state some things outright and just hint at other things and you have to figure all that out. At times during your reading, you might also have to draw a conclusion, understand a character’s motives, or make a connection to something you read previously. That’s pretty complicated and it’s a wonder that any of us learns to read with comprehension! Some people seem to read easily and naturally. But it doesn’t go that smoothly for everyone. A reader must be active and thoughtful when reading in order to get the full meaning.
Reading Starts With Saying Words
It’s true that the main goal of reading is to understand, but this can’t happen until the words are identified. For a reader who can’t say the words quickly, the whole process breaks down. The reader’s “sight vocabulary” includes all the words she can recognize and read automatically. If a reader is getting hung up on common words such as the, is, are, some, and there, reading becomes very tedious. The most common words don’t carry much meaning all by themselves. This helps to explain why they are hard for a new reader to remember, but they must become part of the reader’s sight vocabulary. The best way to remember them? A lot of practice! But the practice should be real reading. That is, the reader should be reading simple, interesting books that include sentences and paragraphs.