The Meaning of Reading

Written by Gen

One doesn’t have to look very far into Marie Clay’s work to find her thoughts on the definition of reading. In the early pages of her 1991 work,  Becoming Literate, she defines the process of reading as, “a message getting, problem-solving activity which increases in power and flexibility the more it is practiced.” I take the order of Clay’s words seriously, thus choosing to believe that the most important part of reading is the “message getting.” This might imply that the “problem-solving” is always done in an effort to get a message.

This is echoed in the second edition of Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals (Clay, 2016), when this complex theory of reading is applied to learning a foreign language, “We can use our visual sense, and we can learn some phonological links, but we only know what some of the words and phrases mean. We find ourselves searching hard for possible meanings (emphasis is mine).”

Anyone who has worked in education for a bit of time is familiar with the metaphorical swinging of the pendulum when it comes to the theory of reading. When countries are compared by testing outcomes, graduation rates, and college readiness the pendulum begins to swing in hopes that more rigorous literacy instruction will solve a nation’s educational standing in the world. This can be dangerous because reading is a complex process, so the inclination is to make it basic and find something measurable to hang our hats on. This is what causes an over-emphasis on the knowledge of letters, sight-words, decoding, and reading rate. We begin to look for mastery of skills and are still left scratching our heads about why our readers aren’t performing at higher levels. It’s because reading is about getting a message.

At a recent professional development session, I was asked to read a passage from a text written in 1852, London. I was asked to pay attention to how I processed the text. Now, I would consider myself a proficient reader, and yet, there is a word in that passage that, to this day, I am not sure if I pronounced correctly. Here’s the kicker: it doesn’t matter. That’s right. I tried it a few ways, assuming a few different linguistic origins based on spelling, but then, my proficient reading skills caused me to leave the word, probably pronounced incorrectly, in order to search for meaning around it. Guess what? I understood the message of that passage. I could talk about it, I could answer questions about it, I’m even confident that I could give a basic definition of that word I’m not sure about how to pronounce.

That reading activity at my professional development session has stuck with me ever since and has changed the way I think about the young readers that sit side-by-side with me every day. Proficient readers don’t try a word until it’s right. They try a word until they’re sure they understand. Just as Clay predicted, I searched hard for meaning. Did I use phonics? Decoding skills? Sure. A little. But it is not what I relied on. If I, a proficient adult reader, do not rely heavily on phonics, why should I make the little student sitting next to me do it?

The fact of the matter is, I can’t think of a single time that I have relied solely on phonics to complete an authentic reading task. When I read a novel or an article, I have the summary, title, or a friend’s recommendation to set my schema and background knowledge. Even a one-word “stop” sign has context: its background is the universal color for “stop!” Publishers of educational materials are the ones who have invented the art of phonics-only reading in order to test students’ abilities to decode nonsense words or read controlled texts in order to capitalize on educators’ panic to find black-and-white ways to prove that students are progressing.

“Whoa! Hold on!” you might be saying. “Do you mean to suggest that we should stop teaching phonics and decoding to young readers?!” 

No. That’s not what I’m suggesting at all. Of course, we need to teach young readers how to break the visual code of our language. What I am suggesting, however, is that every piece of phonetic teaching should also be connected to meaning with a strong message sent to the student that the ultimate goal of every reading task is to get a message from the text. I am suggesting that students not be held back in order to master sets of item knowledge when they are able to make sense of more complex ideas. I am suggesting that if your teaching materials do not include multitudes of daily meaningful and engaging text reading, then warning bells should be going off in your head and red flags should be waving. 

Dr. Timothy Rasinski, professor of Literacy Education at Kent State explains his perspective on phonics learning in a blog post entitled, The Goal of Phonics Instruction is to Get Readers Not to Use Phonics When Reading. The title says it all, but I highly recommend reading the full article here: Rasinski Article. He recognizes that cognitive energy is finite, “So what often happens are readers who can read all the words correctly, but because they are spending their precious cognitive resources on word analysis their comprehension falters.” This suggests that asking students to spend all of their energy on skills (sight words, letters, phonics) will actually deflate comprehension-which is what, Clay reminds us, is the ultimate purpose of reading. 

So, fellow teachers of literacy, I ask you to trust the research that reading is complex. I ask you to think critically about the way in which you present the task of reading to your students. Think about the language you use before, during, and after small group reading instruction, interactive read alouds, and shared reading experiences and ask yourself, “does my language reinforce to my students the importance of understanding what they read above all else?” 


4 thoughts on “The Meaning of Reading

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