Understanding Reading
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Understanding Reading

A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read, Sixth Edition

Frank Smith

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eBook - ePub

Understanding Reading

A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read, Sixth Edition

Frank Smith

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Understanding Reading revolutionized reading research and theory when the first edition appeared in 1971 and continues to be a leader in the field. In the sixth edition of this classic text Smith's purpose remains the same: to shed light on fundamental aspects of the complex human act of reading – linguistic, physiological, psychological, and social – and of what is involved in learning to read.

The text critically examines current theories, instructional practices, and controversies, covering a wide range of disciplines but always remains accessible. Careful attention is given to the ideological clash that continues between whole language and direct instruction and currently permeates every aspect of theory and research into reading and reading instruction. In every edition, including the present one, Smith has steadfastly resisted giving teachers a recipe for teaching reading, while aiming to help them make their own decisions, based on research about reading, which is accessible to anyone, and their experience and personal knowledge of their students, which only they possess. To aid readers in making up their own minds, each chapter concludes with a brief statement of "Issues."

Understanding Reading, Sixth Edition is matchless in integrating a wide range of topics relative to reading while, at the same time, being highly readable and user-friendly for instructors, students, and practitioners.

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Informations

Éditeur
Routledge
Année
2012
ISBN
9781136497759
1 The Essence of Reading
Proponents of direct’ intensive’ and early phonics training for teaching reading (like Reviewer 2 in the preface) partly justify their beliefs by asserting that unlike learning spoken language’ learning to read is not “natural” and that reading itself is an unnatural activity. This book takes a contrary position.
Reading the World
I’ll start my discussion of reading with a psychological point. Nothing is unnatural in the eyes of infants. Everything they encounter in the world is natural’ even if they find it aversive. The arbitrary division of the world into what nature once provided and what people have subsequently done to it is something that has to be learned. Other creatures never make such a distinction. I doubt whether crows have different categories for cars and houses than they do for rocks and trees. Deer are unlikely to think “Here’s where nature ends” when they cross from forest glade to cement highway. “Unnatural” is a concept that doesn’t exist outside language.
So what is written language? For a child’ print is just another facet of the world’ not yet comprehended perhaps’ but not different from all the complex sights’ sounds’ smells’ tastes’ and textures in the environment–not especially mysterious or intimidating.
And what do infants do when they are born into this wholly natural world? They do as they will for the rest of their lives: They try to make sense of it’ to discover how it relates to everything else that they know’ to understand its relationship to them’ its “meaning.” Trying to make sense of any facet of the environment’ including print’ is a natural activity.
How exactly do infants (and adults) strive continually to make sense of everything they encounter in the world? They read it. Reading is the most natural activity in the world.
I am not taking liberties with language here. The word “reading” is properly employed for all manner of activities when we endeavor to make sense of circumstances; its original meaning was “interpretation.” We read the weather’ the state of the tides’ people’s feelings and intentions’ stock market trends’ animal tracks’ maps’ signals’ signs’ symbols’ hands’ tea leaves’ the law’ music’ mathematics’ minds’ body language’ between the lines’ and above all–a point I must come back to–we read faces. “Reading’” when employed to refer to interpretation of a piece of writing’ is just a special use of the term. We have been reading–interpreting experience–constantly since birth and we all continue to do so.
What is this basic reading or “making sense” that we all engage in? I don’t think it needs to be explained’ or even can be explained. It is what we are. Anyone who didn’t try continually to make sense of the world could not be considered a functioning human being. Making sense is a matter of interpreting’ relating the situation you are in to everything you know already. Not to part of what you know’ but everything’ because all our knowledge hangs together. Our understanding of the world’ all of the world’ is coherent’ consistent’ and immediate. Once you know that a flame burns’ you don’t have to say to yourself’ “That is a flame’ therefore it burns.” You know that flames burn. Once you can recognize a truck’ you don’t have to say to yourself “That is a truck” and consult some inner encyclopedia. Once you can read the written word “dog’” you don’t have to say to yourself’ “That word says dog’ I must look up what it means.” You know what it means.
What do children do when they encounter a dog? They don’t say “I recognize that animal with a particular juxtaposition of wet nose’ sad eyes’ and floppy ears as a certain kind of dog’” nor do they say “There’s a dog” to themselves and look up its meaning in a library in the brain. They certainly don’t wait to hear the animal bark to decide what it is. Recognition’ whether of dogs and cats or written words’ is not a matter of breaking something down to its components’ but of integrating it into a larger context.
All learning and comprehension is interpretation’ understanding an event from its context (or putting the event into a context). All reading of print is interpretation’ making sense of print. You don’t worry about specific letters or even words when you read’ any more than you care particularly about headlights and tires when you identify a car.
The best strategy for determining the identity of meaning of an unfamiliar word is to work out what it is from context. As we shall see’ this happens very quickly. An equally good way in different circumstances is simply to ask someone what it is. Often we don’t have to ask. A very poor strategy is to try to “sound it out.”
Some people seem to believe that learning to read is a particularly challenging undertaking–despite the ease with which many children accomplish it’ and despite how much children have learned in other contexts. Learning to read is not rocket science.
No one could catalogue all the things a human being’ even a young child’ has been able to make sense of in the world; it would be an impossible task. We live in an enormously complex and complicated world’ but the times when individuals are actually confused’ even babies’ are remarkably few. Children aren’t usually confused by written language–until someone tries to instruct them on how to read. When people help children to read’ by reading to them and with them’ there is rarely confusion. It is not reading that many children find difficult’ but the instruction.
Most of our learning is unsuspected. Perhaps the most complex learning of all involves the human face. Researcher Daniel McNeill (1998) explained how 22 pairs of facial muscles are constantly orchestrated to display at least four thousand different expressions’ all produced and universally understood without any instruction at all. Some basic expressions of emotion–like fear’ anger’ surprise’ disgust’ sadness’ and enjoyment–may be instinctive’ but the majority are learned early in life. These expressions’ involving the entire face from the corners of the mouth to the eyebrows’ with each element operating individually’ communicate not just physical states’ but agreement’ disagreement’ encouragement’ puzzlement’ disbelief’ collusion’ threat’ challenge–and of course interest and desire. When was anyone taught to interpret all this’ to read faces? (Or to write on faces’ for that matter.)
It is natural for children’ and adults’ to strive always to make sense of the world’ to interpret what everything must mean. So why should language written in an alphabetic script be particularly difficult? The answer is that it isn’t. Reading print is no more complex than reading faces’ and other things in the world. Making sense of print can’t be more complicated than making sense of speech’ which begins much earlier. Written words and spoken words share the same kind of grammar’ meanings’ and other structures. If we can make sense of all the words of spoken language that we know’ we can do the same for written words. The actual numbers involved fade before the vast numbers of faces’ places’ objects’ events’ expressions’ and relationships that we can make sense of in the world. Memory is hardly a problem. Written words are actually easier to discriminate than speech–we can mishear what someone says’ or be unable to recover from a lapse in concentration; in writing we can always check back. Some written words are easier to discriminate than the objects they refer to. Participants in a scientific experiment could identify words flashed on a screen faster than they could identify drawings of the objects the words referred to (like house’ dog’ flower’ and so forth)’ even after extensive practice on the limited set of alternative words and pictures that were presented.
There is nothing unnatural about any of this’ as I have maintained. Written language is no more opaque or impenetrable than anything else in the world’ once we have made sense of it (because we have encountered it in circumstances that make sense to us).
So why do some people have so much trouble learning to read? The first reason might be that they are confronted by reading when it is not the best time for them to learn’ just as not everyone learns to play the piano’ to swim’ or to play chess at the same time. They may be too involved in other things’ or trying to recover from some trauma. Learning to read is not necessarily a problem at any age– unless there are years of reading confusion and failure in the past. Which leads to the second reason why some people have so much trouble learning to read. They’ve been confused. Instead of being helped’ they’ve been handicapped.
People can be confused by anything. Difficulty in learning to read doesn’t mean that it is unnatural (unless everything else that humans do that is not instinctual is regarded as unnatural).
Allusions to “scientific” studies don’t prove a thing. If phonics is an impossible system’ even for computers’ then any experimental study claiming to show that phonic drills have helped children to read must have been looking at something else. In fact’ many studies of phonics and phonemic awareness acknowledge that they are looking at something else. Instead of looking at reading as a matter of making sense of text’ they look at how well children can put sounds to isolated words’ and even to meaningless sequences of letters’ to confirm that they use the alphabetic code. This is like tying children’s feet together to prove they must jump before walking.
References to mythical brain disabilities (diagnosed circularly in relation to perceived reading difficulties) explain nothing. Such phantasms are conjured up in the absence of understanding or coherent theory. And even if there were rare brain malfunctions that make it difficult for a few children and adults to read’ that doesn’t mean that such individuals should be subjected to regimes of unnatural treatment. Such individuals must still be helped to make sense of print–but it will take more time and patience. Calling them disabled is hardly likely to help.
Reading print is as natural as reading faces. Learning to read should be as natural as any other comprehensible aspect of existence. How reading is naturally accomplished’ and what can go wrong’ are the twin concerns of this book.
Disentangling the Undergrowth
To clear the ground for the rest of the book’ I must deal with several matters that in my view contribute to confusions or misconceptions about the nature of reading. They concern (1) the alphabet’ (2) language’ and (3) the brain. I raise these issues now because to some extent they contradict what often seems obvious’ and there is no point in trying to understand reading without first examining critically what many people may take for granted. The remainder of the book will develop the arguments.
The Alphabet
Ever since an alphabetic writing system was invented by the Greeks over two thousand years ago’ the 26 or so letters have had a profound influence on human thought. Many people through the centuries have been fascinated by the letters that make up words’ and the putative relationships of these letters to the sounds of speech. They cannot imagine reading without a central role for the letters that make up individual words. Reading instruction from Greek and Roman times has focused on letters and sounds’ despite continual efforts by critics to emphasize the vital role of meaning in reading (Mathews’ 1966) and to demonstrate that letters play only a small’ redundant’ and often confusing part. Letters have become a fetish. People transfixed by the alphabet ask incredulously what the purpose of letters might be if not to make it possible for readers to read.
But the alphabet was never designed to help readers. It was not invented or developed for that purpose. Nor was it intended to be of any particular help to writers. The alphabet’s true function has always been to help people cope with technical problems of reproducing written language’ for scribes’ copyists’ inscribers’ and printers. I’ll call them transcribers. Tolchinsky (2003) provided an excellent summary of this’ adding that a particular motivation for trying to make writing reflect sound was so that people’s names would appear consistent in print (pp. 42-44).
The prime importance of the alphabet is that it enables people to make marks on paper (and other surfaces) in a simple and consistent manner’ so that to speakers of a language’ the written words will always look the same. In a sense’ the 26 letters are convenient alternatives to thousands of drawings. They are building blocks for the construction of visible words’ like the wooden tablets used in many board games. “Decoding to sound” has nothing to do with it. Readers have coped with nonalphabetic languages like Chinese for centuries’ and continue to do so. Learning to read an ideographic script has never been a particularly complicated or traumatic process. Even in alphabetic cultures today we all understand a multitude of symbols that don’t decompose into individual sounds’ like the ubiquitous X (“don’t even think about it”)’ the icons on washroom doors’ dashboards’ and laundry machines’ numerical symbols like 1’ 2’ 3’ and so forth’ and such characters as @ # $ % ^ & * ( ) + = ? on keyboards. They have names’ but they can’t be decoded into sounds. Nor has the alphabet anything to do with encoding’ for that matter. Letters correspond to sounds only coincidentally; they are guidelines that keep transcribers from representing words in an idiosyncratic and arbitrary manner. Letters cut down on arguments. No one can claim that C-O-W is a better way of writing “horse” than H-O-R-S-E. But this was far more important for the transcriber than for the writer. In fact’ it was not until after the Gutenberg revolution’ when texts began to be mass produced’ that printers began to worry particularly about consistency. They didn’t want spellings that sounded right’ just ones that weren’t contentious.
The alphabet is a construction kit for putting words together– much like the set used by a person who constantly changes the billboards for movie theaters or supermarkets’ assembling one letter at a time from a stock (for the English language) of 26 alternatives. This is an enormous advantage. From just 26 basic shapes’ a unique visual representation of every word in the language can be produced. The sign writer doesn’t even need to be literate’ as he copies one letter at a time from his script. And contrast the cost-effectiveness of having 26 basic shapes from which to build words’ compared with the complexity of Chinese script’ which for formal purposes has to be drawn by an artist. (A standardized alphabetic form of Chinese became imperative with the advent of keyboards for typewriters and computers.)
The second advantage of the alphabet is that each of these shapes’ and their variants’ has been given a name–Ay’ Bee’ Sea’ etc.–so that the illiterate sign writer can be told how to construct every word in the language. Instead of “Use a circle’ a zigzag’ and a right-angle” he can be told to put up an O’ a W’ and an L.
When a child asks “How do I write cat?” we don’t have to say “There’s an open circle at the beginning’ then a closed circle with a tail’ and finally a 
” (I can’t even think how to describe a “T”)’ we simply say “Cat is written C A T.” We can do that for every word in the language.
This far from exhausts the utility of the alphabet. The 26 letters have been assigned a conventional order’ so that every word in the language’ including names’ can be put into easily sorted’ easily searched’ sequences. Think of the utility of alphabetical order in dictionaries’ directories’ libraries’ and other information storage and retrieval systems. Imagine the organizational chaos if alphabetical order didn’t exist. (How could I construct an author and subject index for this book?)
So the alphabet earns its keep; it is one of our most useful inventions. But it is not essential. We could have visible language without it. People can learn to read without a phonetic alphabet without great difficulty. Chapter 9 examines why the sounds associated with letters are largely irrelevant and frequently misleading for readers and writers. But here’s a quick demonstration of that fact. Computer programs that “read” by producing sounds from text that is keyboarded in’ and that “write” by transforming speech input into text’ don’t use phonics. The programs won’t work at the letter-sound level. And as for “phonemic awareness’” the detection of distinct sounds in spoken language that are supposed to correspond to letters’ computers can’t do it at all. Computers do best with words’ especially when grouped in meaningful sequences.
Language
I don’t propose to enter into a lengthy disquisition on the nature of language’ or on its uses in society’ communication’ and expression. I just want to focus here on one narrow aspect of language’ which has a considerable impact on the way everyone thinks. I want to consider how language creates worlds’ objects and rela-tionships’ which in no other sense exist. Language makes us think something is there when it isn’t. It deceives us.
The human race is always prone to give names to aspects of experience’ and then to take for granted that whatever corresponds to those names exists. Give something a name (like intelligence’ or perseverance’ or wickedness)’ and many people will think that it exists’ not as a kind of behavior that fits a certain description’ but as the cause or underpinning of the behavior. Thus for example reading’ which in general is easily identifiable behavior’ has become transmuted into the reading process’ which is assumed (by many) to actually exist within the human brain (which is also supposed to contain a writing process’ a grammatical process’ and a phonemic awareness process).
Learning and comprehension are particularly interesting examples of this drive to construct fictitious entities. Both are widely regarded as skills’ reflecting learning and comprehension processes in the brain. Instructional programs are devised to augment these processes’ and standardized tests to calibrate their effectiveness. But a different point of view can be taken that learning and comprehension are simply states of the human organism. They are neither skills nor processes’ but a consequence of being alive. Their presence in human beings doesn’t have to be explained’ only their absence’ or rather the consequences of their suppression. Any human in a position of being unable to learn is bored. No one would claim that boredom was a process; it is the opposite of learning’ an alternative state. Similarly absence of comprehension is not a lack of skills’ nor the shutting down of a process; it is a state’ to which we normally give the name of confusion. It might be tempting to consider confusion ...

Table des matiĂšres

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright
  5. Contents
  6. Introduction to the Classic Edition
  7. Preface to the Sixth Edition
  8. 1. The Essence of Reading
  9. 2. Comprehension and Knowledge
  10. 3. Spoken and Written Language
  11. 4. Information and Experience
  12. 5. Between Eye and Brain
  13. 6. Bottlenecks of Memory
  14. 7. Letter Identification
  15. 8. Word Identification
  16. 9. Phonics and Mediated Word Identification
  17. 10. The Identification of Meaning
  18. 11. Reading, Writing, and Thinking
  19. 12. Learning About the World
  20. 13. Learning About Written Language
  21. Notes
  22. Glossary
  23. References
  24. Author Index
  25. Subject Index