kitchen table math, the sequel: Why Johnny Doesn't Like to Read

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Why Johnny Doesn't Like to Read

...and why his vocabulary is so bad, and why he's not really decoding as well as you think.

It's all on my page, also titled "Why Johnny Doesn't Like to Read." (Read the whole thing! The first part which I don't have any quotes from explains why whole word teaching (I don't spell it out, but also, to a lesser degree, phonics with large numbers of sight words) makes people dislike reading.

Here's a preview:

The marginal literacy rates in the United States (and Canada and England) are a hidden problem: people can read text that is written at a low vocabulary level because of the high proportion of sight words in such text and can guess many of the rest from context. According to Geraldine Rodgers,

Only about 3,000 of the highest frequency words compose about 98 per cent of almost any discourse. Words from the remaining half-million or so words in English normally compose the remaining two percent of any untreated, natural discourse. However, when written material is artificially simplified in the deliberate attempt to remove that two percent of low-frequency words, the harm that is being done to vocabulary development is hidden. It is usually not even suspected. Such vocabulary control is the real reason for the drop in test scores at the high school and college levels. [6]

It is only when reading difficult material that their reading problems become apparent. Therefore, many people with reading difficulties or who dislike reading don't even realize they have a problem. According to the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey,

Perhaps the most salient finding of this survey is that such large percentages of adults performed in the lowest levels (Levels 1 and 2) of prose, document, and quantitative literacy. In and of itself, this may not indicate a serious problem. After all, the majority of adults who demonstrated limited skills described themselves as reading or writing English well, and relatively few said they get a lot of assistance from others in performing everyday literacy tasks. [7]

I now wear glasses. As a young child before my vision was tested, I thought everyone saw the world as blurry as I did. Because they can read material written with controlled vocabulary, which includes more and more books and newspaper articles, and even modern Bibles in a continued dumbing down process, many people with reading difficulties do not even realize they have a problem. They don't realize that they are reading with blurred vision, and that it is possible to enjoy reading even complex material.

According to Geraldine Rodgers, even most teachers are not aware of the extent of the problem right under their noses:

Yet most third grade teachers do not even know there is a real problem. If a child stumbles over a lower frequency word which has not already been taught, the teachers pronounce it and think the problem is solved, because most children can read their controlled-vocabulary sight-word reading books very well and score very well on the phony standardized “reading comprehension” tests given annually. That is, of course, because only l,000 words of the highest frequency compose about ninety per cent of most reading materials. Once children know those 1,000 highest-frequency words (which account for about 90 per cent of almost any material), they are automatically reading above the frustration level on most reading comprehension test materials. They are therefore able to guess the meaning of most of the unknown words in the remaining 10 per cent from the context of the selection, particularly if those words are already in their spoken vocabularies, and they can therefore guess the answers to the questions.

Their inability to read independently only shows up on oral word list tests which lack a written context from which to guess the words, or on demanding materials which contain difficult unknown, low-frequency words, well beyond the 10,000 commonest words.. Such reading disabled children (and most American elementary school children are reading-disabled) cannot pronounce, and therefore “hear,” low-frequency words because they are not already in their spoken vocabularies, even when they can guess the “meaning” of low-frequency words from the context of a selection.

The sounds of words are really only labels for the ideas being named. If the sound of a word cannot be resurrected from memory when it is needed, then the idea behind that word is rendered useless. When reading-disabled children encounter unknown low-frequency words, they may be able to guess their meanings, but the low-frequency words will lack a “sound” hook with which the children could have filed the word in their memories for future use, and with which hook they could have retrieved the word in the future. As a result, instead of accumulating their vocabulary through their reading, as healthy readers can do, reading disabled children cannot increase their vocabulary in a normal fashion, any more than badly taught deaf-mutes can. The stunted vocabularies of reading-disabled children are the real reason for the low so-called “reading comprehension” scores that show up so consistently today at the high school and college levels. [8]

“Context guesses” for little sight-word readers with normal hearing can obviously only be made for words which are already in the little “readers'“ spoken vocabularies. These little sight-word readers lack enough phonic ability to sound out truly unknown words so that they can add them to their spoken vocabularies. For such readers, vocabulary knowledge therefore cannot be increased by reading, but only by listening to oral speech. By contrast, phonic readers can sound out an unknown word from all of its letters and figure out its meaning from the context. Phonic readers therefore add both the spelling and the meaning of a previously unknown printed word to their vocabularies. The effect, of course, is cumulative: phonically-trained readers reach high school with larger vocabularies, besides being able to spell better and to read automatically with ease instead of with conscious, unpleasant, “psycholinguistic,” “whole language” guessing. [9]

This cumulative effect of vocabulary development was termed “The Matthew Effect” by Dr. Keith Stanovich. Its effects are real, and large, and have been proven in at least one legal case. This online article by Dr. Kerry Hempenstall further explains the Matthew effect, showing the vocabulary differences that accumulate each year:

struggling readers may read around 100,000 words per year while for keen mid-primary students the figure may be closer to 10,000,000, that is, a 100 fold difference. For out of school reading, Fielding, Wilson and Anderson (1986) suggested a similar ratio in indicating that children at the 10th percentile of reading ability in their Year 5 sample read about 50,000 words per year out of school, while those at the 90th percentile read about 4,500,000 words per year. [10]

I have compared the King James Version (KJV) of Romans 12 to the New International Version (NIV) version of Romans 12 to show both the nature of vocabulary restrictions caused by whole word teaching and also to show how uncomfortable it is to be a reader taught with whole word methods. The KJV is on the first page, the NIV is on the second page. If you were taught with whole word methods, you would have to guess at several of the words (those words not in the most common 10,000 words in the English language) based on their first and last letters. Depending on your memorization abilities, several of the red words would be difficult and would require study, and the purple words would be slightly more difficult to remember. The KJV has 10% of its words that are not the most common 10,000 words in the English language; the vocabulary impoverished NIV has only 2%. If reading everything was this uncomfortable for you, you might prefer TV as well!

Here are some samples of vocabulary controlled books. Evidently they are quite popular in schools: Leveled Readers.


ElizabethB said...

The literacy rates from the NAEP and from sources like show that students aren't really reading that well. I've also found from my informal surveys that there are a lot of children who aren't decoding that well.

Anyone who claims they don't like to read or that reading makes them tired probably was taught with a lot of sight words. I've found this to be true among my friends and, when I worked, my co-workers.

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