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Raising Literacy Part 2:
Is Your Student (or child) Reading or Word Calling?

by Bill Lauritzen

eading implies understanding. Many students in our schools today do not read. They simply have learned to say the sounds of the words without really understanding the meanings of the words.

Part of the problem may be in the method of teaching called “phonics” (sounds). “Phonics” has been battling for decades with the “whole word” and “whole language” method. What’s the difference between them? In phonics, the student learns how to say the sound of “th”. In the whole word method, the student learns the whole word “thunder” along with its meaning. In the whole language method, the student is immersed in literature about storms with the hope that he will absorb some things about thunder.

The advantage of phonics is that by putting sounds together the student can “sound out” new words. He knows “th” and he knows “ink” so he reads “think.” He is able to read many words that he has heard and understood, but never seen. And in this age of radio and TV there are plenty of words like that.

The disadvantage of phonics is that the student also can sound out words that he has never heard, and doesn’t understood. For example, he sees “th”, “e”, “ro”, and “pod”, and bravely reads “theropod,” catches his breath, and continues on. The teacher, if not extremely astute, never bothers to check if he understands what “therapod” represents. (A type of dinosaur that stood on its hind legs.)

Soon, you can get a situation in which the whole class is boldly calling out words, thinking they are reading. The principal of the school sticks his head in the classroom, and everyone looks like they are reading and so gives the teacher a good rating. The superintendent stops by the school and everyone looks like they are reading, and so he gives the school a good report, and so on up to the governor, etc., etc. Teachers make this situation worse when, during the reading-aloud time, they give the correct pronunciation of a new word without concurrently giving the meaning.

This “word calling” situation might be termed “phonics fakery.”

So the colleges administer special tests of comprehension called SATs (Scholastic Aptitude Tests), to see if students really comprehend what they read, etc. So the parents pay special tutors to help their kids memorize the type of words and questions on the SATs. So the colleges revise the SATs to prevent this, etc., etc.

The solution is not to stop teaching phonics. The solution is to teach phonics (sounds), but also semantics (meanings). Teach how to link the word to what it stands for.

The solution also is for teachers and students and parents and superintendents and governors and presidents to be honest. If they don’t know something they should say so. Not try to put up a false front.

Many people are afraid of losing their jobs or reputations, so they won’t do this. It takes a great deal of courage. However, if they had the courage to do this, they would be able to look at themselves in the mirror. One may have to do what I did and spend some time reviewing his or her education. They could eventually get their jobs back, this time on a solid footing.

Don’t live a life in fear of being found out. By simply admitting our ignorance, we can open the door to real learning, real knowledge, and real competence. We can set an example for our children and our students.

Don’t tolerate word calling. It is a poor substitute for real reading and real understanding. Teach phonics, gently immerse the kids in literature (don’t drown them), and don’t forget to teach semantics. Raise literacy.

Part 2 of a series on raising literacy by William Lauritzen. He holds a master’s degree in Industrial Psychology/Ergonomics and has studied education for over 15 years.