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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

An Analogy That Illuminates the Nature of Reading

From The Brilliant Blog

By Annie Murphy Paul
February 15, 2014

“Reading is a two-lock box.”

I love a good analogy (in fact I write about the importance of analogies in fostering understanding in my forthcoming book Brilliant), and this is an excellent one. What it means is that reading is really two skills, not one.

It is, first, the ability to “decode” the letters on the page—to translate them into sounds. This process is usually what we’re thinking of when we talk about “learning to read.”

We think and talk much less about the second skill involved in reading, although it’s just as important. This second skill is understanding what the words mean, and this is a much longer, more involved process—because it requires knowledge outside of what’s on the page.

It requires knowledge of the world, the words and ideas and things and people in it, and it’s this that many of our students are lacking. Without such background knowledge, they won’t be able to open the second lock on that box.

Back to that elegant analogy. I came across it in an article by Loren Heal, writing on Heartland.org. Heal was himself quoting Lisa Hansel, spokeswoman for the Core Knowledge Foundation, who says:

“‘We sum up the reading research by describing reading as a two-lock box—a box that takes two keys to open,’ Hansel said. ‘Explicit decoding instruction is essential for translating those symbols on the page into words in your mind. So that’s the first key. The second key is vocabulary and background knowledge. Once you’ve decoded the text, you need to know what it means.’”

Heal’s article also includes some wonderful insights from Russ Whitehurst, director of education policy at the Brookings Institution:

“We have figured out how to teach kids how to decode print on the page—that is, to see a group of letters and to sound them out into words,” Whitehurst says. But a child who can decode can still be functionally illiterate, because they don’t understand the meaning of the words they decode.

Parents, and later schools, can give children this broad understanding by immersing them in an environment rich in words, both spoken and written, and by giving them a wide variety of experiences, whether it’s visiting a museum or taking a walk around the block.

And, lastly, we can encourage children to read on their own, “since that’s the self-healing way of growing [their] knowledge,” as Whitehurst puts it.

Another wonderfully evocative expression: reading as self-healing, a bookish remedy for a deficiency of knowledge. Since all of us have an understanding of the world that is necessarily incomplete, I’d like to think that all of us use reading as a kind of self-healing.

Readers, what do you think? Do parents and teachers place enough emphasis on the second “lock” on the box of reading?

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