Reading vs. Guessing

I've been reading upside down lately. You're thinking, "What? Why?" I have a toddler. Yes, this explains everything. You see, my son likes to bring me books and stand in front of me while I sit and read them. He wants to read standing up. He's a toddler with things to do. He's a busy guy. He wants to get back on the move ASAP. All of this to say, I've had the unique opportunity of seeing words from a different perspective. Yes, literally.

Because the book is upside down I've struggled to read for the first time in a long time—in a very long time. It transports me back in time to second grade. I picture myself sitting on a big carpet square with 20 other second graders, reading out loud to those 20 other second graders, not wanting to make a single mistake in front of those 20 other second graders. I recall carefully sounding out the words.

Sounding out each part of the word, as many of you know, is one of the main tenets of phonics. Teaching new readers phonics goes all the way back to the 1800s. But another method has been creeping into public school curriculum since the 1960s: The Three Cueing System, based on the Whole Language approach. At first this newer method sounds appealing. Initially, it even makes it look like new readers are learning faster because it relies on some quick fixes. The truth is, this method is hindering and often hurting early readers when it's used in place of phonics.

These days, I find myself squinting my eyes at many upside down sentences (back to Toddler Life). I realize, instead of sounding out the words, I could try to look at the pictures for context clues or make a guess at what the words kind of look like. I might get it a bit right. My eyes could wander over to pictures, but that would take too long and my son would lose his attention. I'll risk forgetting my place and then we might end up not reading the book at all. These kinds of tactics are similar to the Three Cueing Method that came about in the 1960s which is still hanging around in public school curricula today. 

The Three Cueing System (also commonly referred to as MSV) is widely used by teachers in schools across the United States today (The M stands for meaning, S stands for sentence structure and V stands for visual information). Why is this method problematic? Its foundation is forgiving of mistakes, which is part of what makes it so appealing over phonics. The fact is, it's just "easier" than phonics. Phonics is hard. So why teach phonics over Three Cueing?

Let's take a look at this example of how the MSV method evaluates reading errors:

This strategy inherently accepts poor reading! It's assumed that children's reading will be full of inaccuracies, but as long as their errors stem from Meaning, Syntax, or Visual cues, they're still "reading well." 

The reality of the MSV method is that it teaches kids that reading is a giant guessing game, instead of teaching them a reliable code; it fosters children who initially feel that reading is "easy" (no sweat, just guess). Once the picture books cease and the vocabulary and syntax demands increase (around third grade), they discover that their "reading" skills don't seem to be cutting it. Then those kids begin to dread reading. Without the knowledge to actually decode the written language, these children don't have skills to fall back on except guessing. Reading becomes a jumble of squirreling around the page and grasping at straws to try to piece together a "gist" in order to scrape by. No wonder the reading scores across the country are suffering greatly. 

Let's compare this to learning math. In math class, I was instructed to memorize multiplication tables. To this day, I am slow at basic math equations. I would memorize that 4x6 is 24, but I never learned the mathematical process behind this fact . . . so I wasn't able to generalize this knowledge beyond 4x6=24. Eventually I learned that 4x6 means the number four added (or multiplied) six times (or the number six multiplied four times). Unfortunately, I wasn't taught (or encouraged) to practice the mathematical thought process as a kid.  Skipping the steps and relying on memorization solidified bad habits . . . and ultimately resulted in reduced math skills. Memorization and guesses only gets you so far. You have to understand the CODE, the PROCESS, the SYSTEM in order to advance! It doesn't take long for the strategy of memorizing words to break down when it comes to English words . . . one simply cannot memorize them all. English has the highest vocabulary count of any language. 

Let's break down how each step of MSV can lead us astray. Meaning: if the reader guesses the meaning the nuance is lost between words like "horse" and "pony" (which are actually two different animals). Structure and Syntax: if the reader misreads or skips syntactical structures, words like "measures" versus "measured", they're learning incorrect grammatical information that will in turn negatively affect their writing. Additionally, prefixing and suffixing is incredibly important for accurate comprehension. Visual: if the reader guesses based on pictures, reading without images suddenly becomes extremely difficult (when reading in the first place should never be predicated on the existence of pictures) when books lose their pictures around third grade. Furthermore, making guesses based on words that share visual similarities, like "even" versus "every", leads to very poor comprehension, as those words are not interchangeable in the slightest as they have completely different grammatical functions.

What can you do as an educator? Bypass reading curricula that supports guessing and look for reading curricula that supports teaching a phonetic code with explicit patterns and rules. If students learn the code of reading, then they will learn that they can rely on their code knowledge (as opposed to reading feeling like a giant "crap shoot"), developing much stronger literacy skills to carry forward!

As a parent, during my upside down reading moments, I've gotten a little bit of insight into how reading feels when you're first learning and everything is much less automatic. However, I quickly learned that applying the code as opposed to guessing served me much better, even when it required more effort. In fact, using my code knowledge to do something as difficult and silly as read upside down was literally my only chance at success! Practicing letters and their sounds systematically is the research-based method of teaching literacy. The process of "sounding out" every part of a word teaches learners the foundation of accurate reading skills that over time becomes so automatic, reading eventually becomes the easy flow we all seek. Putting in the hard work of learning the code from the start will result in faster and more efficient reading later! 

If I can use my phonics skills to read picture books upside down, maybe I should go try a novel . . .

~ Renee

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