Decoding Gaps Bite Back in High School

I was sitting in a sight word workshop a few days ago listening to the presenter talk about strategically building automaticity with sight words through memory cues and repeated exposure to high frequency words. It was a great workshop that highlighted sight words as an important part of any literacy program. However, it also reminded me why many educators don’t focus on decoding as a part of their literacy program–they think sight words are enough. Sight words are not enough.

Of course, there is a sense in which they are enough for many students in elementary school and early ELL development. Sight words allow many students to “get by,” and have the appearance of reading and comprehend certain texts in early and intermediate grades, or as Low Beginner ELLs. But by the time they get to high school, the decoding gap bites back hard.

Vocabulary Flood

The reason is simple. The rate of vocabulary learning increases from a trickle to a rushing stream. Think about just one science class in high school. It’s like learning a new language. The common words that students usually use to describe every-day events and phenomena are replaced by more science-specific words like: absorption, achromatic, adaptation, aerobic, alimentary, allergy, amoeba, amphibian, analogue, anatomy, ancestor, antibody, appendage, aquatic, arboreal, asexual, assimilation, atrophy and auditory. For the majority of students, word like these will be all new vocabulary in just one class in.

Students in Surrey, Canada (where I teach) usually have four, or more, classes per semester. There are two semesters per year for a total of eight classes per year. The topics in these classes tend to change monthly, weekly or even daily. Just imagine the amount of new words in a typical high school year!

So Close, Yet So Far Away

These science words (above) could be new words for ELL students or they might already have a similar word in there L1. In other words, ELL students may just need to translate these words into their own language in order to instantly know what they are.

But knowing only the English written word equivalent isn’t optimal for language learning. Knowing the written word decode and recognizing the sound of the word is much better. Once the student can recognize the word sound, they can identify that word when it is used by others in speech. If they recognize it in speech, they are being exposed to it at an exponentially higher rate and memory retention becomes much more likely.

Pronunciation Matters

Comprehension becomes much more likely too. For example, when I sit down beside students to give them the Jerry Johns Basic Reading Inventory, I ask them to read a story to me while following along on a separate, identical text. I’m listening for word omissions, observing the student’s attention to punctuation, expression, reading rate and persistence.

But now, imagine in the course of the evaluation, an ELL student mispronounces a word. How should I interpret that in the context of reading comprehension? Sometimes it’s hard to know. However, I usually count it as a word omission because the mispronounced word, they have said aloud, is not recognizable to them. In other words, if I read it aloud to them, they would understand it perfectly but they read it, they don’t recognize it.

Good decoding allows the student to recognized the word sound and match it with the meaning in their receptive vocabulary.

More Processing Space

Proficient decoders also have an advantage over struggling decoders because they have more room to do the work of comprehension. In my last post, I talked about Emergent Readers who decode a book and have no idea what it means because their brains are working so hard to decode the text. This same principle applies to ELL students and Early Fluent Readers who are poor decoders. Their lack of decoding skills actually inhibits there ability to think do all the things that great readers do–like accessing prior knowledge, predicting, picking up word meanings from the context and connecting to their experiences.

Skills Give Think-Time

In my recent podcast conversation with Carol Salva, I used the analogy of a great basketball player. Average basketball players respond to what is happening on the basketball court in a delayed way because they don’t anticipate what is going to happen next. This delayed reaction often happens not because the player lacks intelligence but because he lacks skill.

Take a poor-dribbling point guard, named Carson. He take the ball in the back-court while his teammate sprints ahead on a fast-break. Does Carson see his open player? No, he doesn’t. Why? Carson has to switch directions many times to beat his defender and his eyes are glued to his hands. He makes quick looks up at his defender but his mind is focused completely on his dribbling.

Now take the same scenario but switch out Carson for Duke. Duke is a strong dribbler. He grabs the ball in the back-court and his teammate speeds down the court losing his defender. Does Duke see him? Of course he does. Why?

Duke’s head is up because he doesn’t need to look at his hands to dribble. Every move is automatic from hours of practice. His muscle memory takes over and this frees up mental space to think about the next play. With a quick glance he notices an open man. He takes his defender left and does a cross-over to his right hand so that he is ready to throw the ball (with his right hand). He completes the pass.

The same principles apply to reading. Readers with superior decoding skills have a better understanding of the text because all the little chunks of sounds and letter patterns have been firmly fixed in their mind. Less think-time goes into decoding and it frees up mental capacity to predict, imagine, connect, ask questions, notice foreshadowing, wonder about symbolism and the gazillion other things that excellent readers do.

These are two huge reasons why a lack of decoding skills in high school will bite back. Yes, students will develop coping skills. Yes, students with photographic memories will skill excel. But will struggling decoders be at a massive disadvantage? The answer is also, “Yes.”

My Decoding Struggles

Finally, I know that the decoding will bite back because of my own experience as a student. I traveled through my early elementary years in the heyday of the Whole Language approach to literacy.

My mom can remember talking to Mrs. Poppins, my Grade Three teacher, about my terrible spelling. Mrs. Poppins, who adored me, replied, “Don’t worry about that. He expresses himself so well. That’s really what matters.”

I loved Mrs. Poppins, I remember her as a caring soul and a wonderful lady but the reason I couldn’t spell is because I couldn’t decode very well. My weak decoding skills plagued my reading and writing from K-12.

In fact, I don’t think I really ever learned phonics until I started teaching Grade One with a 28 year-veteran teacher named Arlene. She introduced me to my first phonetics program. The Grade Ones and I learned phonics together. “Where has this been all my life?” I thought to myself.

This is one of the reasons, I care so much about phonetics being included in a balanced literacy program. It was my former nemesis who tripped up my reading and writing. I don’t want that to happen to my students and I hope it doesn’t happen to yours either.

If your looking for a few strategies to help your students, please check out my last post.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

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