The difference between decoding and reading

Our 3-year-old recognizes many words. Hand him a book we've read many times before, it looks like he is "reading." But he's not phonetically able yet to sound out words he can't recognize. That will be the next step. What many people don't realize is that decoding is not reading either.

Robert Pondiscio does a great job today of developing that point. Heck, maybe I should just set up my blog to automatically show Robert's blog, and then give up blogging. It's just that given that we are working to launch a brand new MATCH school with little kids, and we have fifty 4-year-olds and fifty 2nd graders about to descend upon us, I'm very interested in anything on the topic of early literacy.

Robert's blog is his commentary about a recent PBS Newshour segment. (The show was called Macneil/Lehrer Newshour when I grew up, and watched it with my dad as a little kid, which gives you some idea about how nerdy I am). The NewsHour reporter John Merrow (a favorite of mine -- really terrific, though in this case imprecise) was arguing that certain kids were labeled on tests as bad readers, but were actually good readers. Merrow used the passage below as an example. Robert disagrees.

JOHN MERROW: I wondered how the fourth-grade class might perform on the state test this year, and asked Ms. Cartagena to send me two of her students who were reading below great level.

Jeannette, who is 9, came first.

STUDENT: So far, I have hoped to find many new species.

JOHN MERROW: I asked her to read a passage about dragonflies from last year’s state test.

STUDENT: About 5,500 dragonfly species buzz around the world. Who doesn’t like — like looking at these amazing insects?

JOHN MERROW: What are species?

BRENDA CARTAGENA: Many kinds.

JOHN MERROW: Kinds. It’s kinds of species. Right. Exactly. Yes.

Robert isn't buying it. He says:

Exactly right? It is impossible to know, based on this exchange, if the child understands “species” as well as Merrow assumes or if she has a sufficient grasp of what a dragonfly is to apply the concept. As a teacher, I’d want to probe more for understanding, “if you’re looking at two dragonflies, how can you tell if they are different species?” you might ask. If she said they might be different colors or have different shaped wings, I’d feel reasonably confident that she understands the basic idea. If she says “one’s male and one’s female” or can’t explain the difference at all, then the concept is still shaky, or she might not know enough about dragonflies to apply it. Either way it would impact her ability to draw inferences and make meaning from the passage.

Given that the achievement gap long predates test-driven accountability, you could sensibly argue that that testing makes the problem worse, but it cannot be the root cause. Similarly, the idea that “real life catches up with kids” by 4th grade is unsatisfying. If reading comprehension is a skill like riding a bike or throwing a ball through a hoop (it’s not), it is not an ability you would suddenly lose if your father was sent to prison or you were evicted from your home.

Worth reading the whole thing.