Closed doors or corridors of power? How effective phonics instruction provides access to meaning

Pamela Snow:

Jane is impressed that her grandson is “sounding out words he did not know”. Wow indeed! That means her grandson has been taught the transferable skill of decoding – of lifting a previously unseen word off the page – and importantly “words he did not know”. This could either mean he had not seen them written down before, did not have them in his oral language vocabulary, or perhaps both – Jane did not specify and that’s fine, tweets have limited character lengths.

We can turn to two well-established theoretical frameworks and one more recent publication here to understand what is going on for Jane’s grandson, and for ten of thousands of other beginning readers.

The Simple View of Reading reminds us that reading comprehension (RC) is the product (not sum) of two connected processes: word identification/ decoding (D) and language comprehension (LC). It can be represented thus:

RC = D x LC

Because the operator in this formula is a multiplication sign, we are reminded that if the value on either side is zero, then the product will be zero. So, if Jane’s grandson had strong oral language skills but no decoding skills for those unfamiliar words, his reading comprehension score would be at or close to zero. (Children sometimes recognise a few key words from environmental print exposure in the pre-school years but cannot necessarily decode them if they see them in isolation or in a another context).