While discussing a project someone recently asked me, ‘what do you mean by reading?’
I gave an instant reply stating, “ The art of decoding the written script is reading.”
The person who asked me this question got easily convinced with my answer but at that moment I questioned myself, “Is just mechanical decoding reading?”
And at that very moment I experienced an epiphany!
In education sector we use several ‘education specific’ terms that have become part of our working vocabulary. There are words like literacy, numeracy, curriculum, pedagogy etc. the words which have very straight forward meanings and then there are words like reading, fluency, accuracy and the word education itself that have different meaning to different people.
You must me wondering, ‘why to focus on these words when the sector has bigger problems to think about!’ and I have a simple answer for that…every big problem has a small miscommunication as the cause!
As a developing country, when we say 60% of the children between age 6-14 can’t read at the second grade level in India (ASER 2015). What do we exactly mean by this? Is it students can’t comprehend at the second grade level? Or can’t decode at second grade level? Or can’t do both? With every changed definition the focus gets shifted. The research gets shifted and so the assessing tool changes. Hence, leading to the change in the statistics I just quoted!
Presently we measure students reading ability in terms of their word recognition ability. The rate of reading and the accuracy are the measurable units that helps us in deciding the reading levels. The process of teaching and assessing reading encourages reading as a mechanical process and not an immersive learning experience.
At an early stage, when a student is unable to recognize the letters, this approach of decoding works but as a student grows old this approach becomes redundant and hardly brings any value. Reading becomes more of a task that has to be done in the classroom rather than a tool to get exposed to variety of text, thoughts and literature in the world.
According to the research paper I recently read, this phenomena of stagnation in learning is called ‘power law’. It states that the learning curve for tasks like reading, perpetual- motor activities, or another skilled task grows until a point and after that the reaction time decreases as a function of practice. In simpler terms, the speed with which you learn shows large gain at early stage but the gain diminishes with further practice and this might be the very reason why some of us stop casual reading and grow a disinterest in any kind of reading after a point.
Over the past decade, a lot of attention has been given to fluent reading and it has come to be seen as the central component of skilled reading and a driving force in the literacy curriculum. But despite this attention, there are number of questions surrounding our understanding of what constitutes reading, who is a fluent reader, what is fluency, its role in reading process etc.
At one hand automaticity and accuracy have played crucial role; but if we want to develop a deeper understanding of oral as well as silent reading at higher grades other variables such as prosody i.e. the ability to read with appropriate expression or intonation coupled with phrasing which allows for maintenance of meaning is also required.
We can say that prosody at higher grade may support reading comprehension, but there is little evidence to support the directionality of the effect. All we can say is there are measures which are not that easily quantifiable like prosody that need considered to assess the fluency of a reader. Though the research to standardise such measures continues, the crux of the argument remains how we are looking at the problem of low reading level in our kids. If we look at early grades, then the decoding technique works. With higher grades, and decent readers this technique adds no value. Here is the point where the measuring variables have to be changed so as to actually gauge whether our students are just reading or reading with fluency.
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