by Dr. Patrick Groff
Professor of Education Emeritus
San Diego State University
The idea of "decodable words" is one of the basic principles of direct, intensive, systematic, early, and comprehensive (DISEC) instruction of a prearranged hierarchy of discrete phonics information. Soon after the alphabetic code (the concept that each speech sound in a language can be represented by a letter) was conceived, a method of teaching this phonics information to novice readers was devised.
The most logical practice to this effect has been to bring to beginning readers' conscious awareness the speech sounds in the language. This phonemic awareness is accomplished by showing fledgling readers a letter, while at the same time pronouncing a speech sound that the letter commonly represents. Then, the learners look at the letter in question, and repeat the given speech sound. These speech sound-letter correspondences are called phonics rules.
This "paired-associate" learning of phonics rules proves to be effective in getting neophyte readers ready (a) to look at letters in the serial order in which they appear in familiar words, (b) to attach appropriate speech sounds to each letter (or letter cluster) in words, and (c) to blend together the speech sounds generated so as to produce an approximate pronunciation of a recognizable word. Beginning readers readily can infer the authentic pronunciation of a familiar written word if they gain access to its approximate pronunciation, it is found experimentally.
This process of written word recognition is called "decoding." A "decodable" word therefore is a familiar one that a learner has been prepared ahead of time to sound-out (attach speech sounds to each of) its letters. Decodable texts thus are ones that contain only familiar words that students have previously been prepared to decode through the application of phonics rules. It is discovered empirically that beginning readers are more successful in accurately reading decodable texts than they are in reading texts that contain words students have had no prior DISEC phonics instruction on how to identify.
As opposed to decoding written words through the application of phonics rules, the experimentally discredited Whole Language (WL) approach to teaching children to identify written words uses what WL experts call "predictable texts." In this regard, the "Whole" in WL refers to the WL principle that children new to reading best learn to recognize written words within the context of whole words, sentences, paragraphs, and stories. To understand adequately the meaning of "predictable" in predictable texts, as WL exploits the term, it is necessary to explain at some length what constitutes WL reading instruction.
Instead of emphasizing young students' attainment of knowledge of phonics rules, and how to apply them to read words, WL reading instruction concentrates on a different procedure. This is encouraging children to use the contexts of written sentences, paragraphs, and stories to guess at the identities of their words. Rather than teaching children a comprehensive amount of phonics information, and how to apply it to decode words, WL instructors reduce the number of phonics rules children learn to a bare minimum.
In this respect, it often is recommended by WL luminaries that children's knowledge of only the consonant speech sound-letter correspondences that occur at the beginnings of words is necessary. This WL doctrine stipulates that application of a highly limited amount of phonics knowledge, along with guessing at the names of written words from sentence, paragraph, and story contexts, is the most time-effective way for beginning readers to master written word recognition skills. However, the vast majority of critical surveys of what relevant experimental investigations have to say on this issue reveal something else. It is that this WL doctrine, along with its other unique ones, are not corroborated by empirical findings.
My many observations of WL teaching of reading in action, plus my extensive perusal of the writings of leaders of the WL movement, reveal other reasons why this form of reading tutelage is relatively time-ineffective. In WL classrooms, the entire class of illiterate children first sit as a group on a rug facing their teacher, who reads aloud to them, several times, an easy to understand story. Much time is devoted to stimulating children to engage in open-ended discussions of the story's simplistic content, to expressing ideosyncratic reactions as to concepts and meanings in it, to repeating words and sentences the teacher has read aloud, and to acting-out the story's narrative.
Following these activities, the WL teacher displays an enlarged copy of the story previously read aloud. The children, who are unschooled in how letters represent speech sounds, are directed to "follow along," as the teacher again and again reads aloud the given story. Occasionally, the WL teacher will stop, point out an individual word in a story, and request the pupils to repeat it. Sometimes, an explanatory remark will be made by the teacher about the initial consonant speech sound-letter correspondence of these words.
However, it is impossible to know in this procedure to what extent the entire class of children actually is looking at words in the story being read aloud. It is my impression that it is customary for some children to not even look in the direction of the enlarged copy of the story on display. Also problematical is whether any child who repeats a word in the story, upon a request by the teacher, is looking at it.
The next order of activities in the WL reading development approach is to break up the entire class into smaller-sized groups, and reiterate with each group what transpired before. Whole Language dogma claims that this rearrangement of students allows the teacher ample opportunity to discover, and remedy if necessary, how well children are progressing toward the acquisition of reading ability.
At the end of this second stage of WL reading instuction, it is held that children are satisfactorily prepared to read independently the story in question. Accordingly, they are sent back to their seats to carry out that assignment. Now, WL teachers busy themselves with engaging children on a one-on-one basis. Experts in WL reading instruction express great pride in the latter accomplishment, although pertinent experimental findings do not validate it as a time-effective instructional strategy.
The stories involved in all the above WL procedures are ones selected because they are "predictable texts." That is to say, the stories are deliberately written so that they repeat many times certain words, phrases, or sentences. A WL principle is that words, phrases, and sentences in these texts become predictable, i.e., foreseeable or logically calculable by beginning readers, if these pupils look at them a given number of times.
For anyone familiar with the history of reading instruction in the U.S., WL assumptions about the efficacy of predictable texts clearly are borrowings from the now notorious "look-say" method of reading instruction (that nonetheless was highly popular for generations in America's public schools). Look-say reading instruction textbooks also downgrade the importance of teaching phonics rules in a DISEC manner.
This method's foremost presumption is that the time it takes for novice readers to recognize written words via phonics instruction could be shortened significantly. It was held that if nonreaders were repetitively shown whole written words, until they were recognized as "sight" words, this would speed up their overall acquisition of reading ability. Sight words are ones children recognize rapidly, without sounding-out their letters.
It now is well-established experimentally that the look-say methodology has fatal flaws. Children taught in this manner somehow are able to remember the identities of a relatively small number of words. However, they soon suffer an overload on their memory systems, and begin guessing wildly at the names of words in sentences. Coinstantaneously, pupils' ability to accurately comprehend what they have read is badly affected.
This latter fault in WL reading teaching is hoped to be compensated for by urging beginning readers to add, omit, or substitute words or concepts in written materials--as they see fit. However, that is a vain expectation, as objective examinations of the results of WL reading instruction reveal. In California, for example, WL reading teaching recently was more popular than in any other state. As a consequence, the standardized reading test scores of young children in this state devolved to the lowest in the nation.
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