What is reading?

Anyone not involved in education might be surprised about how little consensus there is, world wide, about exactly what reading is. Part of the problem lies in distinguishing between the mechanism of reading and the purpose of reading.

The purpose of reading is not all that controversial. The purpose of reading is to transfer an idea from the text being read to the reader’s mind.

The mechanism of this transfer is much more controversial. The key area of disagreement is the exact role of ‘decoding’. Decoding is the translation of letter groups (like ‘th’ and ‘ee’) into the sounds that they make and the further ‘blending’ of those sounds into words which can then be recognised.

While the vast majority of theorists agree that decoding letter groups plays a significant role in the reading mechanism the exact nature of that role is contested. For some the role is fundamental; every act of reading starts with decoding and without decoding there can be no reading. For others the role of decoding is more equivocal; for these theorists decoding is a developmental stage encountered during the process of learning but not part of the way a good reader reads. A good reader, it is argued, takes in whole words even short phrases at a time. There is simply not enough time for every letter and letter group to be individually decoded then pieced together.

This debate is important for educators because it leads to different conclusions about how children should be taught to read. If you think decoding is merely a developmental stepping stone then you only teach enough decoding to get children started with reading actual text then you focus on building the complexity of the material they are reading.

If you think decoding is part of the fundamental mechanism of reading then you teach all the decoding rules methodically only letting the students read material that contains words using the decoding rules that the student as learned. This strategy is broadly referred to as ‘teaching phonics’

In the UK a great deal of effort has gone into teaching the phonetic rules and there has been some success but that success has not been complete; about 15-20% of students still experience significant reading problems using pure decoding strategies. In addition teaching phonics exhaustively takes a lot of time and is very laborious, especially for good readers.