07/10/2013 11:48 am ET | Updated Sep 09, 2013

What Is Reading? It's About Time We Figured It Out


The reading problems in our nation have been reported for decades. Far less well-documented is the fact that we are in no better shape in understanding just what reading is.

The problems are reflected in comments I hear from parents who are concerned about their children's progress. They go as follows: "My child's reading is fine. It's at grade level. It's just that he's having problems with comprehension."

This statement assumes that reading can take place in the presence of comprehension difficulties. That is a highly questionable assumption. Imagine a reader of English who knows not a word of Spanish being given a book to read in that language. Aside from some peculiarities in pronunciation, the "reading" would be reasonably accurate. Yet, you would not hear many people claim, "He reads Spanish -- he just has some problems in comprehension."
This is not to deny that parents have strong reasons for assuming this position. When young children first confront the printed page, they typically find decoding the letters into
recognizable words to be highly challenging. Their failure to convert the squiggles is dramatic -- particularly to adult observers who have been able to do this effortlessly for years. If only the children could get past this obstacle, all would be well.

Significantly, this faulty assumption about the nature of reading is shared by professionals. Ultimately, it has led to a tunnel vision focus in reading instruction where a vast majority of the effort goes into helping children crack the code (i.e., learn to decode, or convert, those squiggles into words). Efforts to teach decoding go under a variety of names -- phonics instruction, phonological training, phonemic awareness, sounding out -- to cite just a few. Given the amount of time and energy spent on teaching decoding, it's not unreasonable for parents to assume that if the children have mastered decoding, they have mastered reading.
This might seem to be simply an issue of semantics. Instead of using the term reading (which covers a multitude of processes), we ought to switch and consistently use the term decoding for the ability to assign words to the clusters of letters on a page. Precise terminology would be an excellent start. But the implications of the change are far greater than one might imagine.

For a start, reading instruction would have to change dramatically. Specifically, in direct contrast to current policy, "reading" instruction would have to be far lower level than a child's "decoding level." Why? Because many, if not most, measures of a child's "reading level" (AKA decoding) use lists of isolated words. In these, the key factor is not meaning, but difficulty. Tests start off with short, familiar words like cat, dog, and sit and move on to longer, less familiar words like battle, memory, and unanimous. Testing ends when the child reaches a particular rate of error.
In this sort of testing, the misreading of an individual word has no effect on any other word. This is far different from "real material" where the words interweave to form meaningful ideas. Imagine, for example, a child misreading the single word horse as house in the sentence: The horse was standing patiently, waiting for the chance to get started. The misreading of even one, let alone several words, in a real text slows the reading, leads to confusion, and unless a child is diligent about figuring out just what went wrong, the end result is lack of comprehension. None of this occurs in reading lists of disconnected words. Consequently, tests involving lists of words frequently lead to an overestimate of the child's "reading level" relative to his or her ability to handle meaningful material.

Few things strike at a parent's heart with as much power as hearing the words "Your child's reading is not as good as the scores suggest." Further, schools and teachers, facing endless and unwarranted attacks about their competence, are loath to tell parents that things may even be worse than they imagined.

The problems do not end there. Even if schools were in a position to be open and above board, they do not have the materials needed to offer children instruction at the level they require. For example, a fourth grader who "reads at grade level" but with "comprehension problems" faces a curriculum involving relatively sophisticated language (e.g., in social studies, a topic such as the exploration of the Americas). To deal with the demands of sustained reading of connected ideas, that student needs the content phrased in ways that do not exceed second or third grade decoding demands. Only in that way will the errors be minimal. Material like that is in very short supply! The typical solution is to offer more work on decoding, which, of course, does not help comprehension.

If our nation is truly concerned about enabling children to succeed, it is essential that we begin to grapple with the definition of what real reading is and with the host of issues that have ensued because of our failure to do so.