SMALL WORDS FOR SMALL PEOPLE?

Once poor readers are thought to be poor, even the best teachers may expect
too little rather than too much
.”

Awakening to Literacy Margaret Meek

Beginners are given difficult text to read – small words chosen to fit small people! Words are strung together to repeat the sounds being taught. They have to be decoded individually because the story doesn’t make sense.

To be successful with these little words they have to know short vowels. My teachers at Normal School in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan (1955!) told me not to emphasize short vowels until children are seven because the ability to hear them is only developed in some children by that age. Since then, I have worked with even older students who couldn’t distinguish short vowel sounds. I was able to teach them to read easily, but they were usually unable to learn to spell well.

Big words are often more phonically regular and easier to read than little words and they are certainly a lot more interesting. ‘Grasshopper’ is easier to read than ‘saw‘. You will be surprised at how readers exceed your expectations when they focus on understanding rather than on memorizing letter combinations and ‘sounding out’ words. The Making Sense Approach to Reading teaches how to change the focus from ‘sound’ to ‘sense’. When the focus is on making sense, small words are often filled in by the brain because talking has given us experience on how words go together.

In the early days of reading instruction in North America, the first reading text students encountered contained real stories with real words and plots. In fact, the Bible was the first text used to teach reading. The subject matter was not chosen for simplicity or made up to practice phonics. An example is this sentence from a grade one reader in the Alexander Reading Series, 1915.

“If the little fly is wise, he will not listen to the spider’s sweet words,
for he would never come out of the web again, and would soon be a little dead fly.

Based on this wisdom, the Making Sense Approach uses reading material that is well above the reader’s level and interesting to both coach and learner. It is possible because the coach is there to show how and to give support. This gives incredible confidence to struggling readers. They realize that they can read small print and long paragraphs. Difficult, interesting words that deliver a message that makes sense, gives the coach something to work on. Then the coach shows the student how to speed up. Good readers are speedy and are confident that they can tackle long stretches of text. This way of practicing builds confidence quickly.

It is actually possible, by too much emphasis on mechanics, to make reading more difficult than it needs to be. The most basic natural instinct of all animals is to make sense and too much teaching can interfere with this natural ability in struggling readers.

Reading, making sense, is INTERNAL, INVISIBLE, and UNIQUE TO THE INDIVIDUAL . As such, it is best learned through apprenticeship, by being coached by someone who knows what good readers do when they read and how to model it for struggling readers.

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