As part of my summer reading, I've been tackling chapters from the sixth edition of Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading (ILA, 2013), edited by Donna Alderman, Norman Unrau, and Robert Ruddell. The material is dense but fascinating. One chapter, Phases of Word Learning: Implications for Instruction With Delayed and Disabled Readers, is a favorite because it speaks to my current interest in how specific types of spelling instruction help struggling students become better readers. Authored by Linnea Ehri and Sandra McCormick, the chapter spends some time describing and explaining what the spelling-reading connection is and provides clues as to how we might use knowledge of this connection to help struggling readers.
According to Ehri and McCormick, any word encountered by a mature reader can be read in one of four ways: by decoding, by predicting, by analogy, and by sight.They also say that our goal as teachers is to enable students to read words in each (and every) one of these four ways. I agree. Carefully crafted spelling instruction can help us reach this goal, especially when it comes to reading by decoding, analogy, and sight. What exactly reading by sight is and how it connects to spelling is an especially absorbing and interesting topic, and this will be the focus of my next blog. Stay tuned! For now, however, I’ll say a bit about the connections between spelling and reading by decoding and analogy.
Decoding and its connection to spelling
A decoding or word attack strategy enables a reader to read unfamiliar words. At its most basic level, decoding involves looking at letters, knowing their sounds, holding and blending those sounds in your mind, and then saying them in pronunciations that are recognized as real words. Now think about how spelling (encoding) works at its most basic level. It's the same thing, but in reverse. We teach students to say a word and “stretch it out to hear the sounds." Then we ask them to assign letters they know to the sounds they hear. Finally, we teach them to check their spelling by “reading through the word” to see if the letters they have written (and the sounds the letters make) blend back together to form the word they meant to write.
More advanced alphabetic knowledge is put into play when readers engage in more advanced decoding. For example, in advanced decoding readers recognize clusters of letters (gl, dr, tch, dge, er), affixes (pre, sub, ment, ful, ly), syllables (De, cem, ber), and spelling patterns (int, eed, oy, oint). Each of these clusters is paired with a cluster of individual sounds that are thought of as a whole. Once again, think about spelling instruction. In spelling, we ask children to think about a word part, syllable, or word family. Each family that is said, such as /ait/, is then paired with possible spellings, such as A-I-T, A-T-E, or E-I-G-H-T. Through spelling instruction we giving children the opportunity to understand how decoding works and we do it from the opposite end, so to speak. In effect, encoding becomes decoding and spelling becomes reading.
Analogy and its connection to spelling
Analogy is another way a reader might try to read an unfamiliar word. When a reader reads by analogy, she recognizes how the spelling of an unfamiliar word is similar to a word she already knowns. To read by analogy, a reader accesses in her memory a known word similar to the unknown she is trying to read. Then she changes her pronunciation of the known word to accommodate the new word. Consider the word dariole. If you used your knowledge of the word oriole to help you pronounce the new word, then you were reading by analogy. Student readers might not know the word cigarillo, but if they recognize the word cigar and think of the word brillo, they can use the strategies of sight and analogy to come up with the new word. By the way, a dariole (noun) is a French cooking term. It is a small, metal, flowerpot-shaped mold in which an individual portion is cooked and served.
When it comes to reading by analogy, the connections to spelling are strong. Spelling by analogy is an excellent strategy to teach children. Connect the spelling by analogy strategy to the reading by analogy strategy and you have done your teaching job well. Here’s what that connection might sound like in a classroom. “Let’s say I want to write the sentence ’The man yelled,”Halt!” And let's say I don’t know how to spell the word halt. What do I do? I stop and think. Do I know a word that sounds like halt? I know salt. And I know how to spell it. S-A-L-T. Words that sound alike are often spelled alike. Therefore, halt is probably spelled H-A-L-T. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the strategy of spelling by analogy. And by the way, the strategy of spelling by analogy is just like the strategy of reading by analogy. Let’s say I don't know how to read this word: H-A-L-T. What can I do? I can ask myself, Do I know any words that look like this word? Do I know a word that has almost the same spelling? I do! Salt. I can see this word in my mind and I know it looks almost like the word I’m trying to read. I know how to say salt, so I’ll just take off the /s/ sound of the S and put in the /h/ sound of the H. The word is halt. There, I just read it!”
The dictionary in the brain
When we teach spelling using master lists that contain many examples of words that share patterns, we help students notice how words relate to one another and we help grow the all important dictionary in the mind. Why is this dictionary important? It’s important because it’s a central part of the reading process, especially when students are reading by analogy and sight. Words that begin as spelling words - dew, crew, view, grew, stew, mildew - become words useful for reading the sentence: His nephew viewed the mildewed cashew with alarm.
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