Thursday 5 June 2014

Is 'decoding' the same as 'reading'?

I've mentioned something in the past which I've called 'phonics drift'. This is really just a gag to describe what I think some exponents of phonics do.

So, phonics exponents will say that phonics teaches children to 'decode'. Children learn the 'alphabetic code' through phonics. If this is all they said, there might be some argument but not a lot. We might say, for example that phonics won't necessarily teach all children the alphabetic code. We might say that because English isn't absolutely 'regular' that phonics alone won't teach you to access the 'true' sound of every word. We might say that because there are big variations in the way that people speak (accent and dialect) that making a particular sound match a particular letter is not always simple. We might say that some children will get the alphabetic code in other ways or including other ways. As a result of these things we might say that phonics doesn't solve all the problems there are for all children in all circumstances. However, at the heart of the statement, 'phonics teaches children to decode' holds good in many circumstances.

But then it emerges that what phonics people want to really say is that 'phonics teaches children to read'. Now this is another matter altogether.

So, going back to 'decoding': the way in which phonics people test whether people can decode is to set decoding tests. The only way they know how to do that is to ask people to say words out loud. So, really the statement, 'phonics teaches children to decode' is really only ever known by saying 'phonics teaches children to say words out loud'. As we all know - and indeed as the Phonics Screening Check shows - we can say out loud words that have no common shared meanings - the so-called nonsense meanings. (Incidentally, as with Lewis Carroll's 'Jabberwocky' even nonsense words have 'connotations' and we will have great fun giving nonsense words meanings derived from words or parts of words that they sound like.)

Now, the key question I'm posing here though is whether 'saying words out loud' is the same as 'reading'?

When pushed, most of the phonics exponents I've met will say, no, reading does imply 'understanding' and 'decoding' is not the same as 'understanding' . So, the question that some of us ask, is how do we get from 'decoding' to 'reading with understanding'? Do all children do that simply be learning how to 'decode' - that is, by doing phonics?

Here is how one phonics exponent puts it (as posted up on my twitter account earlier today:

"By learning to 'decode', you can match words to ideas and knowledge through reading."

Yes, it's possible, 'you can'. On the other hand 'you might not'. Or, 'you might not be able to'. Or 'you might find it difficult'. Or, 'sometimes you might be able to and other times you might not be able to'. And so on.

Why should that be?

Because the 'sound of words' (i.e. what you have 'decoded') is not the same as the 'meaning of words'. And, 'the meaning of words' is not the same as 'language'. In other words you can 'decode' a word without knowing its meaning, so decoding it will not by magic release its meaning. Something else will have to have happened in your life for the meaning to be apparent.

What's more,  'text' - passages of writing - cannot simply be described as 'words'. Passages of writing are made up of very complex arrangements. The words are held together by grammar and they can come in more or less complex sequences, with all kinds of add-ons, interruptions, time-changes, allusions, idioms. Again this is not revealed through 'decoding'. This is only revealed by exposure to the meaning of such passages of writing. 

(I would plead with anyone interested in any of this to compare a full transcription of people talking with a passage of writing.)

There is a big difference between 'varieties of spoken language' and 'varieties of written language'. The two spheres - spoken and written - often use different tactics, different methods. To take one example: much of what I've written in this blog today, is written in a way that I wouldn't usually speak. It is written in 'written-ese'. Part of learning to 'read with understanding' is 'getting' how 'written-ese' works.

One of the ways we 'get' meaning from 'written-ese' is through a great deal of exposure to 'written-ese' and the most pleasurable way of doing this is through hearing and sharing books and comics and written stuff that is fun for the particular age group trying to 'get' it.

Now let's go back to what the phonics exponent said:

" By learning to 'decode', you can match words to ideas and knowledge through reading."

No mention here of getting to what she calls 'ideas and knowledge' through a lot of exposure to 'written-ese'. Quite the opposite - she  is suggesting that you get to 'reading' through learning to 'decode'. So she has got to 'reading' through - and only through - 'decoding'. 

This is what I mean by 'phonics drift'. 

She has downgraded or eliminated the need for a good deal of exposure to 'written-ese' - whether through the ear  (as with reading to children) or through 'sharing' where a child will both hear and follow the text on the page - which any parent sharing a book with a child will end up doing at least  some of the time. Either the child or the adult will notice or point out words. 

In this way of 'reading' - clearly, there is a mix of 
hearing the sounds of words 
hearing the sound of 'written-ese', 
seeing the sentences, 
seeing the words, 
seeing the letters, 
and getting the meaning. 

It's all mixed up.

In the discussion I had with this phonics exponent, she repeated the position that this mixing up is NOT what happens. She claimed that it's a sequence: decoding first, meaning later. But millions of people have learned to read without it being 'first decoding, meaning later'. We've learned to do both. 

Now, another phonics exponent came on to my twitter account to denounce this very process. She said that it 'confused' children because it gave them different 'cues' in order to read. 

This is the theory of 'first, fast and only'. According to this theory, the point at which your child is learning to read, you should not do any other methods of reading other than decoding (teaching children how to 'say words out loud') through systematic, synthetic phonics. If you play with magnet letters on the fridge, stop it. If you read 'Where the Wild Things Are' and you point to the word 'another' as you turn over the page - don't. If you look at a picture and back at a word and let the child say the word because they've linked it to the picture, don't.