kitchen table math, the sequel: palisadesk on the Great Decoders

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

palisadesk on the Great Decoders

Is it true there are lots of kids who decode fluently but have extremely poor reading comprehension?

Not really. You find the phenomenon of children who decode very well but understand almost nothing in only two populations: children with intellectual disabilities and children with very limited English. [yes! I am a "great decoder" in French & Spanish & probably in Italian and German as well. I understand quite a lot of what I read in Spanish (& used to understand a great deal); some of what I read in French; none of what I read in Italian and German. In my case great decoder/poor comprehender = not my native language]

In both groups you occasionally find students who quickly master the alphabetic principle, learn the required correspondences between sounds and symbols, and may even grasp patterns of speech and inflection, but do not know enough language to make sense of what they are reading. They lack the vocabulary, the syntactical sense (pronoun referents, subordinate clauses etc.)

In neither case (IMO) is it a problem that the student can decode well; the teaching challenge is to build the student's language comprehension in a variety of ways.

I often hear teachers say they have students who are "great decoders" and "poor comprehenders." I decided to investigate this phenomenon. I waved some $50 bills at a teachers' meeting and offered $200 to anyone who could find such a student for me who was NOT clearly an ELL case or a student with cognitive challenges.

I asked them to discriminate by using a simple task: take an example of text that the child can readily "decode" but can't "comprehend." Read the text to him or her, and do some oral comprehension items.

If the child can't answer the ORAL comprehension questions, you are not looking at a "reading" problem -- you have a language problem. Maybe vocabulary, maybe background knowledge, maybe receptive language comprehension generally --but not "reading."

On the other hand, if you have a child who understands material read aloud at a high level, but can't READ that text, you (usually) have a decoding problem.

We had a principal who used to tell staff that the school had lots of "great decoders" who were "poor comprehenders." (I think they tell them this stuff at principals' meetings.)

One year we tested the entire middle school (1:1 testing, more accurate). Guess what we found? We had NO students who were "great decoders" but "poor comprehenders," except for a few individuals in the recent immigrant or intellectually disabled group. We had DOZENS -- maybe a hundred -- kids who were poor DECODERS -- in almost every instance, they did not know vowel sounds, vowel digraphs/teams, or how to sound out multisyllable words. EVERY SINGLE KID said that their "strategy" for figuring out an unknown word was to "look at the first letter and guess." Now, where did they get that idea?

Something about DATA, as opposed to perception, changed attitudes. The principal started to encourage teaching decoding skills (without neglecting other important areas). Teachers became more aware of the need to teach kids to sound out words, to learn morphemes, word parts, and strategies for combining and disassembling them.

Now when we find kids who decode adequately, but are poor comprehenders, we usually see issues of rate and fluency. Children in eighth grade reading sixty words per minute can't keep up (Heck, sixty wpm won't cut it in FOURTH grade). So we work on that.

Stanovich somewhere put out a call in The Reading Teacher for data on students who were "great decoders" who could not understand what they read, and he got no useful case studies. Most students whom teachers refer to as "great decoders" are actually nothing of the kind -- if you measure what they do, they often lack critical decoding skills and read relatively slowly, so that the meaning of complex text gets lost in the effort required.


ElizabethB said...

Great Post, I totally agree!

I haven't found one yet, either.

I recently posted about a 5th grade girl I remediated who had no obvious reading problems, but when I gave her the MWIA, she was reading the phonetic words 62% slower than the holistic list. She was reading at grade level with "comprehension" problems.

Of course, she didn't have comprehension problems, she had subtle phonics problems, she didn't know a few key phonics skills and she hadn't learned the phonics to automaticity.

What do you recommend for increasing reading speed for someone who decodes fine but reads slowly? (I haven't found anyone like that yet, but I'm interested in knowing for future reference. My students have all improved their reading speed once they over-learned phonics.)

ElizabethB said...

The post I did wasn't here, it was at the Well-Trained Mind Forum. I haven't been able to post here until I got some computer issues fixed today.

The comprehension thing is a big scam, it's crazy how many people buy into it. Reading is one thing, comprehending is another, they should be totally separate issues.

Anonymous said...

I agree.

But I'm wondering what can be done about kids who have language weaknesses resulting in comprehension problems. My 11 year old son's listening comprehension isn't great. He often misses the whole point of a passage, and subtleties escape him completely. We work on narrations and retellings, but I'm not seeing much progress. Any suggestions?

palisadesk said...

I'm always stuck advising a parent, because the tools for this that I know of that work well are designed for school use and not easy for a parent to obtain cheaply -- or at all.

If he were in school I would probably suggest testing him to see whether Language for Thinking was appropriate; if not, I would suggest the Corrective Reading Comprehension program, starting at Level A , "Thinking Basics."

You can buy the book by Carmen and Geoffrey McGuinness entitled "Language Wise." It has a lot of language-development activities in it. The problem with a book like that, in my experience, is that it is not sequenced enough and doesn't provide checkpoints so you know you're making progress. It's kind of hit-or-miss.

You might also want to join the DI listserve and pose your question there. You'll get lots of advice from other parents -- there are a number with issues very like yours who are trying to fill in where the school can't or won't.

Unknown said...

Here are a few thoughts for anonymous and her 11 yr. old son . . .

You might try cutting back what you expect of him. If you are currently working on chapter or book length passages cut back to a paragraph or two. Go through several reading and retellings till both of you feel confident with the material.

Also, if you are concerned about things like irony, word play, historical allusions, etc, teach these explicitly each time they are encountered. Then have him retell what you have taught him in context.

Another problem might be lack of attention, ie lack of interest. Perhaps intersperse your academic retellings with subjects he finds interesting, (manga, dinosaurs, space, etc.).

You might also consider reducing the proportion of 19th century books in your repertoire as these have much more complex sentence structure, more obscure character motivation based on outmoded social customs and archaic vocabulary. These are great reading, however, for the beginning student they present a great challenge.

Dan Willingham (I think) suggests reading questions first as this helps to focus attention on the important issues as the passage is being read. If you are not working with a textbook, you could just pose a few questions beforehand to get him thinking. For example, if you are working on Treasure Island, "Tell me the ways Jim shows himself to be brave in this passage." Use these questions to help focus him on what you think is important.

Finally, make sure you have pre-taught any technical vocabulary. Not understanding technical vocabulary can really hamper comprehension as so much hangs on their precise meaning.

Good Luck,