As I became aware of the many skills children were failing to master, I tried to see if there were patterns into which they could be categorized. That led me to turn to my training in spoken language where very complex skills are categorized into a relatively small number of categories. First there are the physical skills of hearing and mouth movements that are the basis for perceiving and producing spoken language. Next, there are the more conceptual categories that characterize language itself. These are phonology (the sounds of the language), semantics (the meaning of words), syntax (the grammar or structure of sentences) and text (the extended messages that convey meaning). Putting it all together, one ends up with six categories.
Reading is language, albeit in a different medium from spoken language. In the teaching of reading, as I discussed above, only two categories dominated. I began playing around with using the six categories of spoken language and seeing how they might handle the behaviors I was seeing.
The categories in spoken and written language are naturally not identical. For example, while the physical skills in spoken language are hearing and mouth movements, the comparable physical skills in reading are seeing and hand movements.
Nevertheless, the six categories are incredibly helpful. For example, they help us understand the difficulties I mentioned earlier that children have in the decoding the “little” words such as who, he, was, of . Traditional phonics attributes the problems to the fact that these words are “exceptions,” that is, they do not follow the rules. If they were to behave as they should, who might be spelled as “hoo,” he as “hee,” was as “wuz,” of as “uv” and so on.
But that explanation is not sufficient. Other much less frequent words such as bread , love , go do not pose the same difficulties even though they, too, do not “follow the rules.” The label of “exceptions” is also quite misleading since the words that have been called “exceptions” actually form the majority of words on any page of print. Think about it-children are being told that most of the words they see on a page are “exceptions.” How can one reasonably characterize a majority in this manner?
A linguistics approach yields a much more satisfactory explanation. Using that approach, we can cluster the words of our language into two major groups-content and non-content words. Content words– by far, the largest group with hundreds of thousands of members-represents the nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs that we use. By contrast, non-content words are all the other words. Their numbers are minute–totaling less than 200 in all. Their power, however, is enormous since they are “glue” that allows us to combine words into meaningful sentences.
To see this, simply look at the question you just raised-the one where you said, ” What led you to propose that there are six skills involved in reading ?” See if you could even begin to approach formulating that question without words such as what, you, to, that, there, are, in . These words fall under the category of syntax–one of the six skills I referred to earlier. They also happen to be the “little” words that are so difficult for children to decode.
Research on spoken language has shown us that the two groups of words are mastered in different ways. Non-content words develop later than the content words, they are processed in a different part of the brain, and their mastery requires much more conscious effort on the part of the child. From my studies, as well as that of others, it is clear that these factors hold in reading as well.
If we apply this information to teaching, the effects are profound. In place of casting these words as bothersome, anomalous “exceptions” that receive scant teaching time, we need to give them a major role in the instructional process. That is what I have done in my comprehensive online reading program for kids.
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