In my position as a Prep School Headteacher, I come across a lot of parents who leave their children alone to devour book after book, blissfully assuming that their kids are advanced readers.
Many of these parents are shocked to discover that far from losing themselves in a world of literature, their children are simply going through the motions of recognising each word individually, but barely understanding a thing. They are not reading. They are decoding.
“An area of confusion for parents and teachers”
There is a world of difference between a fluent reader and a fluent decoder, though it is often an area of confusion for parents and, sometimes, teachers.
Decoding, the ability to decipher which word a group of letters represents, only allows you to make sense of letters on a page. If you are able to merge the letters C, A, and T to form the word ‘cat’, you are a successful decoder. To read, however, is to both decode and comprehend simultaneously.
Think about it: adult readers do not decode words without any understanding, and then return to read the words again in order to understand them; it happens at the same time. The ability to do this is what makes a fluent reader.
“Single word tests essentially measure decoding”
Unfortunately, many school reading assessments are concerned much more with decoding than they are with reading. The widely used Suffolk Reading Scale, for instance, requires children to read a word aloud in a timed context, which from a teaching standpoint tells you next to nothing about a child’s reading ability.
Single word reading tests, in my view, essentially measure children’s ability to decode, and it’s therefore absurd to assign a ‘reading age’ based upon them. That is not to say that ‘reading age’ is a useful metric in my view either; there is actually very little consensus on what ’difficulty’ is when it comes to books.
Some teachers assign age levels to books based upon word length, others on how many pages it has, and they very often fail to consider the complexity of the themes and concepts that they discuss. I have seen the same book being used in Years 2, 3, and 6 in different schools, and all because the teachers had their own views on its ‘level’.
It is perhaps as a result of the overemphasis upon decoding in assessment that parents have an exaggerated view of their children’s reading ability, and therefore give them books which are beyond their understanding.
So much wonderful literature is wasted on voracious decoders for whom the meaning is totally lost, and it’s the responsibility of schools and parents to stop this from happening. But how?
“Tests should assess meaning”
From a schools’ perspective, it is much more valuable to provide pupils with reading tests that assess the meaning of the text, as well as the pupils’ ability to decode.
Teachers should remember too that there are also different levels of understanding of meaning, from literal comprehension to inferential and evaluative.
Tests of literal comprehension are appropriate at any reading level since the answers are directly stated in the text, whereas the higher order reading skills of inference and evaluation require sophisticated levels of understanding that come with age and experience.
Inferential comprehension, for instance, requires a certain amount of ‘reading between the lines’, while evaluation demands that the reader offers some level of insight and analysis. Both must be taught specifically, but they cannot be rushed as they will so often be associated with emotional maturity.
“Continue reading with your child”
For parents, it is crucial to continue reading with your children, no matter how confident they are reading independently.
As they read, ask children questions that help check all aspects of their comprehension. Which part of the story did they find most exciting, and why? Does the story remind them of anything they have read before?
Talk about any unfamiliar vocabulary they come across, and try to use these new words around your child in the days and weeks following their introduction to it.
Doing so will provide you with a wealth of information about which books are most appropriate for your child, and simultaneously help them develop their inferential and evaluative comprehension.
Once these higher order skills are mastered, the truly fluent reader has emerged.