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If you believe that reading basically involves phonetically sounding out words, then you ought to be able to read the following story, and you ought to be able to read it quite easily. After all, this is how things look to your children when you want them to read by means of phonics. By the way, if you cannot understand it, just read it out loud to someone who is not looking at the printed words. They will tell you what you are reading to them even though you won't know what you are reading. And they won't understand how you can possibly NOT know what you are reading.
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After all, this is a very famous story that everyone knows practically by heart.
The moral of this exercise is that reading is not just a matter of sounding out words, even in those cases where one can sound out the words fairly rapidly. One can sound out the words in the above story and still not even know what the story says, because this sort of "decoding" -- even when one does it out loud -- is not the same thing as hearing familiar words spoken in a meaningful context. I do not know why this is, but it is. And it seems not unlike the phenomenon of being unable to see a figure in an optical illusion -- even a figure that one has seen before in that illusion. There is something about "interpreting" sights or sounds that is just different from hearing or seeing them -- even in cases that seem to be simple and direct (to someone who has learned to do it, or who can do it immediately, in a particular case).
And this is a separate phenomena from being unable to understand words that one can sight-read. One can learn to sight-read in a foreign language for example without having any idea of what the words mean. Or one can "read" and be able to pronounce words in one's own language without knowing their meaning if they are not part of your vocabulary. Children who have learned to sound out words can often read paragraph after paragraph without understanding anything they are saying. But that is not the problem with understanding the above story. The problem with being able to understand what one is reading in the above story occurs at a more fundamental level of cognitive understanding or interpretation.
And even when words are a part of one's vocabulary and someone knows the words s/he is reading, one may not understand what is being said, just as most adults could read poetry without understanding what they are reading even when they know all the words. Making sense out of written words is no easy matter, though what probably makes it seem easy to most adults is that they shy away from, ignore, and forget about those writings which they cannot readily understand. After one has learned to read, reading is pretty easy if one sticks with the kind of text that is familiar and fairly simplistic. And it seems easy when one is not tested to demonstrate how much one really has not understood.
This is not to say that being able to sound out words phonetically is not important and it is not to say improving vocabulary of recognizable words is not important. These things are both important. It is to say that there is far more to reading than (1) being able to say individual words out loud that one sees in print; more than (2) recognizing individual words and their meanings; and more than (3) even recognizing the meanings of sentences and paragraphs. In "Writing Non-Fiction College Papers and Exam Answers", I explain that words and sentences have logical and also what I call "non-structural" significance, so I will not go into those important aspects of reading here. The broad point of those distinctions for here is that, contrary to our intutions about children's reading, it is important not just that children learn to pronounce words when seeing them in print, but that they learn to understand what it is those words mean in context -- it is important that they understand what the text means, what the ideas are, that they are reading, not just the individual words. The reason is that understanding individual words will not necessarily mean comprehending the ideas those words are intended to convey.
What teachers, parents, and anyone else helping children learn to read need to do is to make sure not only that students can read or pronounce words, but that they understand the ideas those words express. To do that, one needs to ask children to express in their own words the ideas they are reading, sometimes as they read individual words, sometimes as they read sentences, and sometimes after they have read a whole page or an entire story, poem, or essay. With regard to simple poems, stories, and essays, this will not usually be difficult for children, though it will be surprising to see even then what some of their misunderstandings might be that need you to help them correct.
All too often parents and teachers assume that because a child can read
in the sense of being able to pronounce words, or even in the sense of
parroting the words in a sentence to "fill in a blank" or answer a recall
type of question, that the child therefore can read and understand any
sentence of paragraph whose vocabulary is familiar, but I think that is
simply not true. It is also not true that because a child may be
able to read and understand a simple story or a fiction story where plot
and action is the most important element that the same child will be able
to read and understand something totally different, such as a recipe or
an essay or a textbook paragraph in science or social science. Teaching
children to be able to pronounce words is not the end of reading, but only
Reading can also be seen, in a different way, to
be more than sounding out syllables as one goes along with one's eyes,
by the fact that one gets slowed down tremendously when having to read
complicated, unfamiliar names such as foreign names or scientific terms.
Yet one is not necessarily slowed down having to read all new vocabulary.
It is only certain kinds of constructions that slow down reading, not all
unfamiliar words. Apparently we learn to recognize whole words or
phrases, or perhaps even longer sections, without having to examine every
syllable of every word we read. Again, I do not know how we do this,
but we clearly seem to be able to read as much, or more, by some sort of
familiarity with whole patterns of syllables and words as we do by plodding
through each letter and syllable we see in a sequential straight line.
Reading would be terribly slow if we had to look at each letter and syllable
and string their "sounds" together as we proceed, even if we could recognize
the individual syllables pretty rapidly. (Return to text.)