“I Only Memorized Some Words”

By | October 25, 2013

Child (comments when he sees a word printed on paper):  That word is “sing.”

Me:  It looks like you can read words.  Can you read many words?

Child:  No.  I only memorized some words.  I don’t read yet.

Me (writes “dog” on a piece of paper):  Can you read this word?

       d  o  g

Child: “dog”

Me  (changes the word one letter at a time and asks each time if he can read that word):

       l  o  g

Child: “log”

       l  e  g

Child: “leg”

       l  e  d

Child: “leb……no, led” (realizes “leb” is not a word and changes to a word that makes more sense)

Me:  Did you ever memorize any of those words, or were those new words that you read?

Child (surprised):  I read those words.

What are we to make of this conversation? What knowledge and skills does this child (let’s call him Matt) have?  Was Matt reading or not? Did he need to “memorize” each word?

In this brief conversation, here are the things I discovered.  Matt:

  • Knew and could apply at least some of the most basic one-to-one correspondences between sounds and letters used in words with the consonant-vowel-consonant pattern. (Code knowledge)
  • Used the English left-to-right reading and writing convention. (Left to right)
  • Blended the sounds of each new word correctly.  Did not carry over non-salient information from how he read the previous word. (Blending and phonemic manipulation)
  • Confused the shapes for d and b, but was able to use the context of his knowledge of real words to make a decision for “led” over “leb”. (Used meaningful semantic context)

All of these are signs of “real” reading. Matt would not be able to read all words and text, but he has a foundation of basic knowledge and skills that should make it easy for him to continue learning to read, though how quickly and easily will depend on the kind of instruction he encounters.

What was surprising to me was Matt’s impression that he had only “memorized” words before. Many parents, teachers, and even some psychologists talk about learning as if it were a matter primarily of memorizing unrelated information. Yet much of the most productive human learning depends upon building upon prior knowledge in meaningful ways.

Sometimes students are given the message, directly or indirectly, that education is about learning lots of isolated information or rules. Matt may have been told explicitly that he must memorize every word to read, or he may have made this inference from his previous reading instruction. When people believe that learning is primarily memorization, they are more likely to present information in poorly organized bits and pieces that force memorization of seemingly random information. For example, the initial instruction for reading and spelling in some classrooms may consist predominantly of lists of “sight” words that often reflect few regularities, resulting in most children needing to memorize them.

Yet students often use meaning and context on their own to make better decisions. Instead of giving up too quickly and choosing his first reading of the word as “leb”, Matt used his knowledge of real words to help him to make a better, in this case, a correct choice. This is the sort of natural human propensity that we want to take advantage of in schools so that students learn more effectively.

We also don’t want students to give up because learning requires much effort because they can’t recognize and use crucial information. Matt needs to know much more of the alphabetic code of the letters and letter combinations that represent the sounds we use in English. (For example, Matt could quickly learn to read many words with the sound ‘ee” by reading and constructing many one-syllable words according to the various ways to represent that sound — e.g., ‘e’ as in he and she; ‘ee’ as in sleep and wheel; ‘ea’ as in eat and heal; ‘ie’ as in chief and thief; and so forth.)

A few children become good readers by recognizing and using implicit patterns, with little direct instruction. (Often, these kids benefit from learning about the alphabetic code in order to spell well.) Most children need explicit and clear instruction about what is most important in order to learn effectively.

Karen McDonald, Ph.D.

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