Category Archives: reading

How We Read Words

I am reading The Neural basis of Reading and currently reading the chapter called The Functional Neuroanatomy of Reading.(Cornelissen 2010)

The author, Nicola Brunswick, asserts that there are two routes to reading single words and that this is borne out in neurological research.  I am not going to go into the neurology in this post as I think that the theory is probably of more interest to educators.  Besides, I don’t feel that I fully understand the neurology.  No surprise, as I am only eighty pages into the book.  When I do understand, I will write a post on the topic.

Whole language and Hooked on Phonics

Do you remember the Whole Language versus the Hooked on Phonics debate?  When I started teaching[1] in the eighties it seemed that the teaching community was polarised by the split between the two methods.  At the time I didn’t feel that I had a strong grasp on the whole language concept even though I was told my own approach to teaching reflected that perspective.

What is Whole Language?

The Whole English Language

The Whole English Language (Photo credit: Jason DeRusha)


Whole language teachers engage their students in the use of language and teach the structures of spelling, grammar and writing as the issue arises during the students’ learning.  In my classroom, I read to the children and the children read on their own.  For my students who couldn’t yet read independently, I created tapes of stories they could listen to on headphones as they looked at the book itself.  I made sure to tell them when to turn the page.  Students were encouraged to guess at words they couldn’t figure out rather than interrupt the flow of the text.  These were educated guesses based on context or graphics such as pictures or diagrams.

Writing, grammar and style

My students also wrote daily, starting with a journal, but also using writing in all kinds of forms including reports on classroom experiments, their own stories and scripts for advertising. I read the journals daily and responded to the content.  This was not the place to correct grammar or spelling.  I did note problems with spelling and grammar and addressed the most common ones with the class.  When I had the opportunity, I also privately talked to some students about errors I didn’t deal with in class.

Almost every product except for the journals was expected to be correctly spelt and written.  This was done through drafts and conferences with the students on their work.  They talked to each other about their work as well as discussing it with me.  The Writing Conference Centre was actively used.

Using handwriting to teach spelling, punctuation and poetry

I was expected to teach handwriting.  Setting up practice was rather dreary but I


Handwriting (Photo credit: Mot)

used it as an opportunity to teach spelling, too.  For example, in setting up practices in the joining of w and e and h and e, I would include such bugbears as were, wear, we’re and where and explain the differences.  In later work, there might be sentences to show the difference in usages: “Where were you?” “We’re going to dye our underwear green.”  “We were wearing out the pencil sharpener.”

Later, when we had gone through all the permutations, I put up poetry to be

English: A scene from "", by Lewis C...

English: A scene from “”, by Lewis Carroll, drawn by Sir John Tenniel in 1871. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

copied as a writing exercise.  I first used The Walrus and the Carpenter.  Each day they copied a stanza.  Through the exercise, they learned the difference between a stanza and a verse, the technical aspects of writing out lines of poetry and some new vocabulary.  The writing morphed into learning how to read poetry, most importantly not to pause at the end of the line unless there was punctuation there to tell you to do so.  They also learned the purpose of punctuation and how it helped the reader to understand.

Phonics and whole language

I didn’t ignore phonics or the teaching of spelling, I just taught phonics when and where it was useful to learn it.  We did do spelling tests.  The list of words was drawn from my observations of the students’ difficulties and the vocabulary they were trying to use.  I always added an eleventh very difficult word such as chrysanthemum or fuchsia[2] that didn’t count in marking the tests; it was only for fun.  Sometimes students learnt the tough word better than the others.  I didn’t plan it that way, but now I realise that it also taught students that there are a number of words in English that break orthographic rules.  You can’t entirely rely on phonics.

Hooked on Phonics

Hooked on phonics

Hooked on phonics (Photo credit: daveonkels)

Phonics in this context refers to teaching the correlation between sound and letters.  This allows unfamiliar words to be sounded out by the reader.  For example, if you know that g followed by an i or an e will be given the soft pronunciation of g i.e. “j”, you can decipher the pronunciation of words such as gorge, gamete and gelid.  It won’t be much help with geisha or gecko, which is why experience is important in learning English.

Stress, pronunciation, meaning and spelling

However, a multisyllabic word that follows the rules of standard phonics may still stymie the reader in pronouncing it.  Pronunciation includes stress; without knowing which syllable is stressed, one can pronounce the word and be misunderstood. There are also a handful of common words in English that change their meaning depending on their pronunciation.  How would you pronounce object in the following two sentences?  “I object to your use of such vulgar language”; “My object all sublime, I shall achieve in time…” (From Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado)

as Yum-Yum (center), with Kate Forster (left) ...

as Yum-Yum (center), with Kate Forster (left) and Geraldine St. Maur (right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To learn how to pronounce difficult words check out the two sites below.  I especially like Forvo as it usually gives both the British and American pronunciations and even states the gender and origin of the speaker.

And to find the eight words whose meaning depends on the right stress, check out

So phonics is a useful tool in in figuring out the pronunciation and spelling of words, but thanks to the many languages from which we have adopted words and the development of English from a more ancient language, one would flounder in the orthographies of English without experience of all the many exceptions.

sept15classroom 001

sept15classroom 001 (Photo credit: mrstg)

What about Balanced Literacy?


visualliteracy (Photo credit: alisonkeller)

Initially, the words were a description of a holistic approach to teaching language in which teachers use their personal professional knowledge to select their methods.  As professionals they are free to choose and use the materials they deemed appropriate.  Neither phonics nor whole language is an issue as the selection reflects what the students need to learn about language at this stage in their development, how they learn and their interests. What Balanced Literacy now means is a whole different kettle of fish and a considerable money earner for academic publishers.  But that is a topic for another post.

So what are the two routes to learning reading?

The first route, according to Brunswick, is called the grapho-phonological route.  The progression in this route is from recognition of individual letters to the conversion of those letters to sounds.  You probably recognise this route as very closely related to teaching phonics.

The second route is called the lexico-semantic route. The reader recognises words and proceeds from there to deduce the rules of spelling and acquire a knowledge of irregular spellings.

Which route is more effective?

The author doesn’t comment directly.  What she does say is that the grapho-phonological route is more useful in languages with shallow orthography.  What she means is languages where there is almost always a direct correspondence between letters and sounds.

Unfortunately, English is a deep orthographic language.  That means that not only can a grapheme (linguist speak for a letter or bunch of letters that make one sound) make several different sounds but different graphemes can make the same sound.

Think of the f sound.  It can be made by f or ph or gh as in food, phonics and laugh.  And gh can sound like f or p or, with an ou sound preceding it, sound like ow or o: laugh, plough, hiccough and thorough. (Cornelissen 2010) What is a poor speller to do?

You can see that to be proficient in decoding English words, you definitely need both routes to reading.  Neither route is more effective, but together they allow readers to acquire a good command of spelling in English.


Cornelissen, P. L. H., Peter C.:  Kringlebach, Morten L.; Pugh, Ken., Ed. (2010). The Neural Basis of Reading. New York, New York, Oxford University Press.

[1] My first class was a grade three/four split.  My second was a grade two/three split.  This was a particularly interesting class as most of the second grade was behind in language and several of the grade threes were advanced.  You will notice that my approach could also have been called Balanced Literacy except that the term wasn’t being used at that time.

[2] I prefer to use words that students can understand or might even have heard frequently:  necessary, definitely, conscientiously, onomatopoeia, pneumonia, asthma, psychology.  My personal bugbear is accommodation.  For more information go to:

Ideas, lessons and units currently available on for Teaching Outside the Box


This unit is aimed at getting twelve year olds to read in quantity and quality.  It could be adapted for other grades and might need to be adapted for other marking systems.  The list in number 5 was originally written to go with this unit.

5.         Have You Read?

A list of books aimed at academically talented grade seven and eight students with the intention of broadening their usual tastes in reading and pushing them to try something new or a bit more challenging.

4.  Finding the Poetry

A lesson aimed at teaching the important parts of writing poetry: words and feelings.

3.  Learning to Love Teaching Poetry

It’s tough teaching poetry well.  This is a suggestion for a unit used for grades two, three and four using The Walrus and the Carpenter and The Tyger.

2.  Lessons in Perspective (Art, Empathy, Math, Literature)

A unit that combines lessons in perspective in art, empathy and mathematics.  Can be expanded to include literature and writing. Can be adapted K-12

1. Using the Internet to teach and teaching students how to use the Internet

Ideas on teaching research skills to all grade levels, including appropriate use of Internet, identification of bias, Boolean logic, using indexes, encyclopaedias and other resources.

Struggling to Read with Comprehension

There are two kinds of people who decide to enter the teaching profession: those who were good at the game of school and those who weren’t.  Those who weren’t nurse a hope that one day they might make a difference to someone else who isn’t good at the game.

I was mainly the latter although I was pegged as someone who Could Do Better if only I worked/did my homework/ was motivated/ wasn’t so lazy.  I was very good at reading so as a teacher and even though I knew better, I never really got the concept that a child could read words with some fluency and yet haven’t a clue what they had just read.  Never, that is, until I started studying Chinese in September.

I am a motivated student, prepared to work hard.  Most days I spend between three-quarters of an hour and an hour and a half studying, using every tool that comes to hand in addition to doing the assigned homework.  I wasn’t able to start the course until a couple of weeks into it and it was another four weeks before the textbook and workbook were available.  I used Internet sites and my notes to study for the first couple of quizzes.  My wrists and thumbs hurt from writing characters in pencil on paper and on the pad on my computer.  I remember why written work was such hell for me in school.

My average is probably an A- or B+ in spite of those difficulties and I would be proud of myself except that I rarely understand the professor when she speaks to us in Chinese. I stumble over the simplest replies. I read sentences with the halting lack of expression of a very early reader and worst of all even if I had recognised every character with ease, I still wouldn’t have a clue what I had read.

In short I am that reader I didn’t understand: the one who can read the words without understanding the sentence.  I am beginning to understand how they can get by for so long and even do well in school!

For a start, textbooks and readers today are packed with full colour pictures, diagrams, maps, charts and other supplementary information about the topic at hand.  The non-reader can garner a lot of information from the visual aids on the page.  In fact, students are encouraged to do just that as part of their reading strategies; the illustrations provide a legitimate means of giving readers information about the topic and a chance to anticipate where the text is going.  The non-reader will rely heavily on the information, not just use it a supplement to the reading material.

Secondly, students are often tipped off by the phrasing of a question as to what answer is expected.   “Do you think Goldilocks should have gone into the cottage?” is a fairly clear indication that the questioner thinks not.  It is not easy to create a question to elicit answers that will indicate how well a student understood the story; that is an art in itself.  I have often spent time before class jotting down ideas for effective questions or rephrasing the ones I had.

These readers in difficulty are unlikely to volunteer answers unless they are sure their answer is correct.  While you don’t want to embarrass them, you do want to know how good their comprehension is and you do want to engage them in discussion.  A teacher who intermittently chooses volunteers and those sitting on their hands to answer will prepare all the students for being called on when they aren’t sure.  This will be especially true if the pattern is random so students will not be able to predict who is next. Following up an error with tactful questions to the student or the class as a whole can be the beginning of using mistakes as a learning experience.  Comments more widely directed such as “that’s a different way of looking at it.  How would you support this argument?” can help the class as a whole consider less conventional ideas instead of embarrassing the student who didn’t understand the work.

“Interesting thought, Jenny.  Can you tell us what made you think of that?” will work once the student is confident enough to think on her feet.  This gives her a chance to refer to the text (struggling readers don’t miss everything) or bring in other experiences or texts, strategies encouraged in all readers.

If the struggling reader avoids participating in discussions of stories and other texts, she has many ways of faking it on paper.  Many adults have told me that they just listened to class discussions and used the information as a basis for answering questions.  If the teacher uses multiple choice or fill in the blank type exercises, then the work has just got easier.  Usually a child who is paying attention can figure out which choices or words are the best candidates for right answer.  Then he makes a guess.  If there are, as usual, four choices and the student guesses wildly, he has a 25% chance of getting the answer right.  If he correctly narrows the answer down to three or two choices and then guesses, he improves his odds to 33% or 50%.  If he actually figures out a right answer or two, he may pass.

This all assumes he does not cheat or receive a little help from his friends.  It also assumes that he does not employ bafflegab in writing answers.  This is the fine art of confusing the reader with such convoluted language or grammar and oversized words that it is unclear what the writer intended to say.  A good dose of if-it-doesn’t-make-sense-then-the-answer-is-automatically-wrong usually cures it.  However most teachers do give the student the benefit of the doubt a time or two before lowering the boom.

In other words, the struggling reader can often do a good job of faking it, especially if he is reasonably bright.  When he declines to read in front of the class or stumbles on his words he will allow the world to assume that he is just shy.  He will announce that he hates reading and then no one will know for sure unless they explore in depth.

Why won’t the teacher be concerned?  If the child is generally well behaved, is scraping through in reading and passing in the other parts of Language Arts and the other subjects, that’s good enough.  Many teachers have the attitude that reading is not part of other subjects so don’t support weak students with new vocabulary or more sophisticated grammar in subjects like history or science.  They may believe that they need to accommodate the child in learning the material, not in means of learning the material.  What they forget is that reading and writing are fundamental to academic success.              The language and thought of each subject needs to be learned along with the subject matter itself.

In addition, the teacher will have a handful of students who are working below grade level and others who have been identified as needing support.  The teacher will have her hands full doing the paperwork for those students and planning for them as well as the normal workload for her class.  A brief interview with the parents of the struggling reader and a suggestion that they read with her at home may be all she has time for.  She could suggest educational and psychological testing but she knows that the child will be low on the list and children with more serious needs will regularly be popped in ahead of their student.  In the end the child would be placed in a regular classroom with support, where she is now.

A child whose timed reading comprehension is in the 7th percentile will not get help, in fact, no one will suggest testing if she has a C average (high level 2).  Most teachers will not even suspect that she is anything more than lazy or dislikes reading

So what are the struggling reader and I to do?  I know what I will do.  Classes have finished and I have my final exam on Saturday, December 18 from 7 p. m. to 10:00 p. m.  I am going to start by spending a chunk of my studying time listening to a pod cast teaching oral Chinese and practising saying the sentences I hear.  I will still spend time every day practising writing characters and listening to sounds and writing the characters, pinyin and tones I am hearing.  With luck and hard work, by the 18th I will be able to read a simple sentence of Chinese characters and understand the meaning at the same time.  If it gives me insights into how to help the struggling reader, I will let you know.