The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The Invisible Components of Reading

on June 10, 2017

Today’s post is a revision of an article I wrote for teachers several years ago.  I post it again now because I think it’s important for parents, grandparents, and critics of schools to also understand how reading, writing, and  vocabulary are learned beyond the traditional components of  classroom teaching.

We all know that young children learn many things on their own without any help from adults, such as walking, talking, scribbling with crayons and playing with toys. But what most of us don’t realize is that children also learn without formal instruction the basics of some skills that are considered part of the education process. Although the components I list below aren’t really invisible, they go largely unnoticed because children begin to learn them incidentally at home and continue learning them through their outside environments. Today I will identify six such components that parents and teachers should be aware of and support as children proceed through their maturation and school grades.

1. Listening /Speaking Vocabulary—Children begin learning words in their first year of life. Their oral vocabulary grows quickly as they interact with adults and older children in their pre-school years. Research done in the mid-twentieth century indicates that between the ages of 3 and 8, ordinary children learn approximately 20 new words a day. Even more interesting is recent research that counted the number of words exchanged between pre-school children and their primary caregivers and found that socio-economic factors make a huge difference. Based on extrapolations from observations made in the homes of children between 7 months and 3 years of age, children in low-income families  exchanged an average of 10 million words with family members by the age of 4; those in working class families, 30 million; and professional class children, more than 50 million. There were also significant differences in the content of their exchanges, ranging from commands such as, “Pick up your toys,” to discussion questions such as, “What should we do this afternoon?” Just think what those differences in oral vocabulary can mean when a child begins formal reading instruction in school.

2. Intonation Patterns of Speech--Although we rarely notice, spoken Language has defined patterns of rising and falling tones and word emphasis within every sentence. Think about this sentence: “Have you washed your hands?” It can have three different meanings depending on intonation and whether you stress “you,” “washed,” or “hands.” Yet, nothing on a written page suggests those patterns. If we were to read a text as written, we would give every word the same voice tone and emphasis, stripping away any meaning. Unfortunately, many struggling readers work so hard decoding word-by-word that they do just that and, as a result, may not understand what they have read.

3. Sentence Structure—By the time children enter school, their basic oral grammar is fairly well developed and acceptable by the standards of their cultural or regional dialect. Although young children can’t say whether a word is a “noun”, “verb,” or “adjective,” and may not use the standard word endings, they do know how to sequence words in a sentence. No child says, “ Dog I my fed.”  This knowledge helps children to make sense of sentences in which there are unknown words such as, “Don’t step on that echinoderm!”

4. Literary Forms and Conventions—When children are familiar with fairy tales, poems, fables, and sayings they find it much easier to read new examples of those literary forms. In beginning to read a new fairy tale, for example, such children already know what to expect from the hero, heroine, villain, and secondary characters.  They are also familiar with patterns of threes in tasks, obstacles, or contenders, and stock phrases such as “Once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after,” even though those phrases are not a part of the everyday world.

5. Reasoning—Unfortunately, too much of current reading instruction emphasizes following rules and memorizing procedures. And because they are what is taught, children think that’s what they are supposed to do. If teachers emphasized thinking more and formulae less, children encountering unknown words could do a better job of reading them. Take, for example, the sentence, “ The cowboy jumped onto his cayuse and galloped away.” Instead of trying to sound-out the word “cayuse”, a reasoning young reader can easily deduce that it is some kind of horse and just go on reading.

6. Background Knowledge—Indisputably, this invisible component contributes the most to reading competence. When children know people beyond their family and friends, places beyond their neighborhood, and things other than the content of their homes, their ability to read increases exponentially. To take a simple—and common—example, I have met few first graders who could not read the words “tyrannosaurus rex’’ in context, even though they present decoding problems. Because most young children have seen pictures and heard information about this dinosaur, they can read not only its name but also words referring to its habitat and behavior. The more young children know of the world in general and its contents in particular, the better equipped they are to read new material with understanding and to master the various academic subjects covered in school.

Given the potency of these invisible components of reading, the question for us to consider is how can they be incorporated in the school literacy program without making them into formal lessons or unnecessarily repeating the experiences children already have in their natural environments.

First and foremost, I advocate that parents and teachers should read aloud regularly to children of any age from materials they are not likely to read on their own. I would aim for a healthy mix of fiction and non-fiction–including pieces from newspapers and magazines– that introduce children to unfamiliar places, people, animals and language styles. As adults read aloud, they should pause from time to time to explain unfamiliar words and allow children to ask questions.

Another powerful strategy is to incorporate more oral use of different language forms into the school curriculum, such as poems, songs, chants, and games that children can learn and recite in chorus. Other appealing and helpful experiences for children to expand their knowledge of written language are participation in various forms of oral language arts, such as puppet shows, role-playing, and the re-enactment of stories they have read.

Finally, I suggest using all manner of visual materials—at home as well as in school–such as photos, videos, cartoons and artwork, to help explain new words and make challenging reading materials more understandable.

Before signing off, I want to mention one more invisible component of reading not directly supported by research: children’s beliefs about their relationship to books. When it comes to developing reading competence, nothing could be more powerful than believing “Books are so full of wonderful things. I bet I will like this one, and I’m sure I can read it!”




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