Crack the Code

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By: Amy Klein

See below: a bar code, a UPC symbol and the relatively new invention, a QR code.

Ubiquitous on packaging, advertising, personal ID documents, anything needing identification, we know these symbols have a purpose. They hold useful information. But in order to access the meaning of a bar code, UPC or QR, a device is required–a bar code or UPC reader, an app downloaded to a smart phone or ipad–designed to decode the pattern of print. Without a decoding device, these symbols are just markings. We have no clue what they mean.

Now, look at this paper. It is covered in markings. Letters, representing sounds, group to make words. Words representing concepts (people, places, things, actions, descriptions, relationships between concepts) combine into sentences representing thoughts. Letters, words, sentences, together, hold information. All in all, it is print or text. Like the devices that decode a bar code or UPC or QR symbol, meaning can easily be made of text when it is read. That is, if a person knows how to read.

Musicians also work with a code. The code of music is composed of symbols that represent pitch and rhythm. The symbols, or notes, are put into patterns and combinations that allow a collection of noises to be transformed—miraculously–to a melody that makes sense. When we listen to a well-written melody, we can easily attend to its collective line and phase and even predict somewhat how the music will rise or fall, increase or decrease. We find ourselves connecting the sounds to emotions, recalling past memories or picturing places in our minds. We crave the resolution of a chord or a song, and feel satisfied when it does.

As the meaning of music is in the listening, so is the meaning of text in the understanding. Just as music is more than hearing sounds, reading is more than recognizing words.

According to National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), reading is the complex, multi-faceted process of constructing meaning from print. Learning to read as instantaneously as scanning an electronic symbol is a gradual process. It actually begins with the first sounds we hear even before birth. Our experiences with sounds and the associated letters build our phonemic awareness. When we begin to understand how the symbol-sound relationship works to form patterns and words, we are studying phonics. This knowledge also allows readers to “sound out” words or decode them. We can break words into parts—phonemes or sounds, morphographs or combined sounds that have meaning, syllables, or parts of words composed of vowels and consonants. Word parts are put back together through our system of orthography, or spelling. (Technically, punctuation also fits under the umbrella of orthography.)

Beyond decoding, what allows us to make meaning is comprehension. It is an essential tool for understanding the information we take in. Composed of a distinct set of skills and strategies, a person’s ability to comprehend is put to work while listening to music, but also when listening to spoken directions, a story told aloud, an academic lecture. A photograph, a painting, a circle graph or a spreadsheet is viewed and understood. Films, podcasts, websites, email, blogs require our ability to comprehend visually, auditorily, and through the recognition of words in text in order to make meaning of decoded information.

In a word, this is literacy.

People best able to comprehend have several traits in common. We have a purpose for reading, viewing or listening and can identify the key elements contained in a piece. We can make predictions about those key elements and adjust our meaning as we get more information. We make personal connections, recall memories and experiences, notice mental pictures forming from the information we take in. Questions pop into our minds and we wonder about how our thoughts relate to this piece, other pieces, ourselves and each other.

The multi-faceted nature of learning to read requires a balanced approach. In fact, the National Panel for Reading focuses reading into five pillars: phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, fluency, vocabulary. As with music, the more automatically one can read music or decode symbols, the more fluid reading becomes. When reading is smooth, accurate and quick we say it is fluent. New words and their meanings expand a reader’s word experience and strengthen the other four pillars of reading. Decoding words and word parts with a high level of accuracy, having a large mental word cache for listening, speaking and recognizing words in context and reading those words without hesitation or pauses allows the most valuable pillar, comprehension, to occur. (See Figure 1 for another analogy.) Best practice reading instruction intertwines work with phonics and work with making meaning of the text as a whole.

Building proficient readers is a lifelong process. A six-month-old baby interacts with the pictures in a board book, a toddler claps along with the rhythmic lines of nursery rhyme, a pre-kindergartener retells the details of a story read aloud. By first grade, the letter-sound system is starting to feel comfortable along with the ability to summarize, visualize, make connections and ask questions. The more literacy readers are exposed to, the more reading independence is possible. People make reading progress as they work with increasingly complex text at an appropriate level, recognize higher-level words, read more efficiently, read a wide variety of genres and types of text, and spend time thinking deeply about what they read. This is a process that never has to end.

As you read this text, you may be thinking how you learned to read, how you use words everyday, whether you understand instructions better that are explained through pictures versus text, or if a video is the quickest way for you to learn something. You might be wondering how students managed decades ago with Dick and Jane books or how students of today will manage to become solid readers with electronic books. These connections, inferences and questions confirm comprehension. Consciously knowing that you are making connections and inferences and asking questions is called meta-cognition or thinking about thinking. When a reader is able to articulate thinking in meta-cognitive terms and even better, create new thoughts from the information taken in, this is critical thinking. In the world of education, it is the pinnacle. In the world of an educated society, it is what we desperately need.

So, how should reading be taught?

Our system of education ought instill a purpose, value and passion for learning. Because all learners are unique, everyone’s source of passion will be different. Literacy skills should be built keeping connections and motivation for those passions in mind. According to reading researcher Richard Allington, everyday, everyone should read something at their level that they want to read. Students who practice using language to make their own meanings through reading, writing, listening or speaking become more literate. Allington further implores students to write about something they want to write about. Everyday. The best way to learn to become a better reader and writer is to read and write. Observing someone model good reading and writing doesn’t hurt either.

Authentic reasons to read and write underscore the value of engaging in the activity. Validating personal worth and potential in emerging readers will build momentum toward motivation. Inviting all students, parents and neighborhoods to join in opportunities to read, discuss, talk or write about thinking builds a literary community in the classroom. If the literary community is supported by a strong culture for literacy, we will have cracked the code.

Decode this QR to find Amy Klein’s five pillars of reading instruction.

In case you don’t have a QR code reader handy:

Amy Klein’s Five Pillars of Reading Instruction

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