Thursday, April 9, 2009

What is Reading?

I'm hoping to keep this short, so forgive me if I oversimplify.
Reading is constructing meaning from text.
OK, well I guess I don't need to keep it that short.
Many adults who do not work in fields involving teaching, reading, or writing, mistake the concept of reading with the concept of decoding. Decoding is just saying the words. Decoding is what you do when you read this:
blophen gribluck weevin smid.
You use your knowledge of English to pronounce these words in a particular way. You probably didn't concern yourself too much with thinking about what was being communicated because you could tell early on that this was nonsense. You are still decoding when you read this:
With door black onion.
These are words, of course, so you are no longer looking at nonsense. Each of these words makes something happen in your brain. When you put them together it all sort of falls apart, though. When you read that last bit, you read it as a list of words, not as a chunk of meaning.
So we know what decoding is. Now let's talk about reading.
Reading is decoding PLUS thinking. (Don't worry, I'm not going to try to define thinking here.) Reading is saying the words, putting them together to figure out what is being communicated, thinking about what we already know about that, thinking about how we feel about it, being reminded of other things we experienced or read about, wondering new things, predicting words, ideas, events, or changes that may come later in the text. And there's more. When you read, saying the words is only the beginning. After that a whole lot of other things happen in your head. That's part of what makes it so rewarding!
When we help our kids read, we need to recognize this. They don't learn to decode first and only then make meaning. They must learn to make meaning, or do all that thinking work, AS they learn to decode. Even in the easiest of books! So when you are sitting with your little one reading a book, take a look at your input. Do you talk mostly about decoding, saying things like, "sound it out," or "you know that word, " or "look at that word again, is that right?" or "no, that's not what it says there"? If so, you are not alone, but you can do something about it. For every decoding-type thing you say, try to say TWO meaning-oriented things, like:
  • What's going on here?
  • Look at the picture
  • That was funny
  • I love this part
  • Oh, no! He tore his shirt!
  • Ooooh, she's going to be in trouble
  • That was a nice thing to do
  • What a good friend!
These are the type of comments that show our children that reading is a social act. When they read, they too will begin to comment more on the meaning than on the strategies they are using to figure out words.

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