Sunday, March 8, 2015

Reding Without Nonsense

Frank Smith's Reading Without Nonsense: Fourth Edition is filled with whole language dogma galore. Unfortunately this hides some of his more pertinent and interesting points. His major thesis is that phonics is a misguided and useless attempt to teach children to read- children need only read, be read to, write, and be guided by supportive assistants in order to read. While I concur that an isolated phonics program is not going to teach fluent reading and that students need to be exposed to the rich, interesting and diverse world of print, sacrificing one for the other is not the answer.

He proposes that reading is the combination of visual and nonvisual information; the vast majority of it being nonvisual. The inner workings of the brain as it interprets print is what constitutes reading. The diagram below summarizes this thought.

We know that without a brain, eyes by themselves do not read. They requires the brain to relate the text to what it knows in order to frame meaning around the print. After he postulates that reading requires the brain to organize and make sense of text, he goes on to deny dyslexia could possibly have anything to do with how the brain interprets the visual message. The brain must interpret it as organized. A conflicting viewpoint to be sure. He goes on to state that there is no difference in the brains between successful and struggling readers, a point that fMRI studies have clearly demonstrated as faulty. Proficient readers and dyslexic readers utilize different neuronal pathways when reading. Researchers have even shown that some specialized instruction can modify existing pathways to resemble those of more successful readers and the reading ability of the individual improves.

One interesting point he makes is that proficient readers use strategies of skip, guess then sound out to figure out unknown words. The problem with struggling learners is that they do not comprehend the text adequately to guess accurately and when they skip, it is often on meaning bearing words. Struggling learners demonstrate their inability to comprehend by failing to utilize comprehension monitoring. Some will ask for help, but when it is necessary to constantly ask for help understanding the text, the reader will be slowed down past the point of comprehension. This has not happened because children have been denied access to text, but because they have trouble interpreting it in the brain.

He does point out that
"Children won't advance in the subject area if they can't read the text, and they won't improve in their reading if the subject matter is opaque to them. the only solution for the teacher is to try and ensure that both reading and the subject matter are made as easy as possible, which means keeping them separate fro the child having difficulty with both" (p. 156).

This is certainly an area where I have run into issue with high schoolers. They are struggling readers- reading sometimes 8 grade levels below their current grade. They clearly cannot read and understand the text to learn the material, but teachers and schools protest that they cannot receive low reading level books because it "dumbs down" the curriculum. We are told by the Common Core advocates that they must be given challenging reading to advance their skills, but their understanding of the underlying content is so limited that there is no chance they will get it without serous scaffolding and instruction IF it is read to them. Somehow we need to balance reading skill with content understanding.

Although the author is a professor and journalist, he is not a teacher. His writing clearly indicates a lack of understanding of current learning theory regarding reading and teaching in general. To think that merely reading with kids will get them to read is simplistic. To deny that reading difficulties have organic as well as environmental sources is damaging to parents of children who struggle to learn to read, the teachers who work with them and the students caught in the cross fire. To insist that identifying reading problems early is a waste of time minimizes the success of struggling readers. He may be a well-educated and bright man, but his understanding of the complexities of reading is limited.

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