Friday, April 17, 2015

The strange case of the word ‘yacht’

The strange case of the word ‘yacht’. This old chestnut comes up on a fairly regular basis and is cited as an example of how not all English words are decodable.

In truth, the word presents us with more of a challenge than many others. However, holding to the notion that every word incorporated into the English language is comprised of sounds and that all sounds have been assigned spellings, ‘yacht’ contains three sounds /y/ /o/ and /t/. How then can sounds be linked to spellings in a way that would enable young learners to remember how to spell it?

Well, the word came up in the round in a school I was working with a few years ago. We 'embarked' on an exercise in seeing how best to link the sounds of the word to the way it is spelled. I asked the class, a Year 4 who had been doing a good quality phonics programme since they had begun school, to work in small groups and to see what they could come up with. They proposed two choices: first, y  ach  t; and, y  a  cht. They then voted on which of the two they preferred. The answer was the second choice. [My vote went to the first!] This was, they argued logically, because the sound /o/ can be represented by the spelling a in lots and lots of words, when it follows the sound /w/. Having completed this short exercise, to implant it into their memories, they all wrote it and said all the sounds, before reading it back again. [This little activity should be repeated a week or so later.]

Of course I wouldn’t expect a young child to be able to read or spell the word without some support. And, if it came across the bows during a lesson, I’d deal with it there and then, or, if it proved to be too intrusive, save it to discuss later. This is how best to extend code knowledge in KS2/3/and 4.

Talking of it coming across the bows, where does the word come from? In actual fact, it is derived from Dutch. In early modern Dutch, a ‘jachtschip’ was a pirate ship. Readers of German might also recognise the word from ‘jÓ“ger’ or ‘hunter’. In Dutch, the word sounds remarkably like the English word, except that the ch represents a separate sound, which sounds a bit to my ear like some Liverpudlians would say /k/ in the middle or at the ends of words: thus, /y/ /a/ /k+/ /t/.

So, what’s my point? Well, I have two actually. The first is that not only is the word decodable and encodable, it is also an example of how, even at a bit of a stretch, English is comprehensive. That is to say that it can easily incorporate pretty much any loan word from any language even when the loan word is a challenge for us to pronounce and, as a result, forces us to anglicise it. My second point is that, having analysed the word in the way suggested above, children are far more likely to remember how to spell it in the future. And, if as a teacher you find that you're stumped as to the derivation of a word, ask the children to look it up online.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Decoding, comprehension and muddled thinking

We know from a variety of different studies that the same regions of the brain are activated when we read as are activated in speech comprehension. As we are reading, our brains are hunting for meaning and, as long as a word is in our vocabulary, we understand it as we read. Of course, in the case of highly proficient readers, all of this happens in milliseconds and under the level of our conscious attention. For the beginning reader, things aren’t quite as straightforward.

The simple view of reading contends that efficient reading is the sum* of decoding ability and comprehension. These are the core competencies. To make sense of text, the reader must first be able to ‘lift the words off the page’, or turn spellings into sounds and blend the sounds together to produce words. Once decoding has taken place, only if the word or words are within the reader’s spoken comprehension will the message be understood, even if the reader is a super-efficient decoder. For example, I can read anything in Italian or Spanish or German but I don’t always know the meanings of the words.

It’s also true that our definition of what constitutes good comprehension will vary according to age and according to the amount of cultural background knowledge any particular reader possesses. For beginning readers (YR to Y2) and for students who can't read fluently, we should, for the most part be presenting texts that focus on practising fluency. Those texts should also, for most students, be fairly literal – as opposed to the kinds of more sophisticated, interpretive (figurative) meaning we expect of more mature readers.

This is quite different from the kinds of texts we might ourselves as teachers or carers, read to young children, which can and should contain all kinds of figurative meaning. The reason for the focus in teaching beginning reading and writing to be on literal meaning is that literal meaning is innate. For L1 speakers, literal meaning is straightforward and doesn’t need to be taught because children’s vocabularies vastly exceed what they are, as yet, able to read. So, in the beginning, teachers need to focus attention on teaching children to decode fluently.

Why should decoding be our prime concern? It’s important because to understand textual meaning, we must be able to hold sufficient amounts of text in working memory. If decoding ability is insufficiently automatic, the strain on working memory is enormous. Being unable to read more than about 60 words per minute is going to result in the reader being unable to remember the beginning of the sentence or paragraph by the time they get to the end. If reading speed does not increase, children won’t be able to understand more complex text.

Therefore, in the beginning of learning to read, automatising the decoding process must be our primary goal and teachers need to be aware that, aside from the issue of including large numbers of infrequently encountered words, the complexity of the text being presented should also be a major consideration. For example, syntactical complexity and the introduction of embedded relative clauses will place further strain on working memory.

In other words, the focus should be on learning to read, which subsumes a number of different aspects which I have explained a number of times before on this blog. Once children are out of the starting blocks, the kinds of texts they should be practising on should be commensurate with what they are learning in their phonics programme. And large amounts of practice needs to be available: 'readathons' and other encouragements are vitally important in improving fluency and comprehension, as well as reading for expression. To emphasise the point once again, if reading speed doesn’t increase, children won’t be able to understand what they read.

In developed countries, fluency without understanding is relatively rare. The number of children unable to understand text requiring a literal understanding is likely to be very low. In these relatively few instances, lack of understanding can be attributed to several things, among which are: poor language knowledge, especially for non-L1 speakers at home; shorter working memory capacity; intellectual problems; and, limited attention span.

Learning to read a transparent language, such as Spanish or Italian, is very much easier and enables the reader to make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn in a relatively short period of time. Leaning to read a more opaque and complex language such as English takes much more time (three years). For this reason, the training of teachers charged with teaching children in the early years needs to be done properly. Providing trainee teachers with a few hours here and there doesn’t cut it. If teachers don’t have a clear understanding of how the writing system works in relation to the sounds of the language and understand issues to do with working memory, they simply won’t be able to teach reading well and they will always be prone to being sidetracked into activities that don’t correlate to teaching reading and spelling successfully and waste time.

What’s the solution: (read my lips) train the teachers.

* When I wrote 'sum', I was writing metaphorically. If I had been quoting Gough and Tumner (1986) and referring to the formula R = D x L, I would have written 'product'. However, I think the point I'm making is clear enough.