Jennifer Buth Bell, MS EDL - Boys Town National Training
I began learning to play the piano when I was seven years old and took lessons for a period of five years. It was a lengthy, arduous, and tiresome process, which began with frustration, and ended in defeat. Even though I acquired the ability to recognize notes and play simple pieces, after years of practice, I did not conquer the piano rather the piano conquered me! My nine year-old son on the other hand, who also began lessons at age seven, is having a dramatically different experience. In just two years’ time, he has gotten the hang of keyboard direction and finger placement. He is able to read notes quickly, play scales and chords automatically, and move easily through challenging pieces with little effort. In three years less time,
his adeptness at piano playing has far exceeded mine. But why? We have learned the same basic skills; our motivation, instructional experiences, and amount of practice are largely similar; and we share common DNA. The question of why is a difficult one to answer. Still, he has the makings of a maestro and I have that, of a music-school dropout.
Just as people may vary in their knack for playing a musical instrument (i.e. the piano), so to, do people differ in their capacity to read. Reading is a process that requires a variety of skills including:
Each skill builds upon and influences the other. Some children acquire early literacy skills auditorily, from repeated reading by their parents, grandparents or older siblings. Some learn naturally through experience with whole words and phrases and exposure to meaningful text; and still others learn through direct and explicit instruction in alphabetics, phonemic awareness, decoding, and word study. Regardless of the medium through which a person learns to read, it is believed that all individuals travel through a similar trajectory. The speed and efficiency at which one moves along this pathway toward development though, can vary from person to person and depend on upon a number of different biological, neurological, psychological and environmental factors. Similar to attaining instrumental skill, some children blow through the paces of learning to read quickly and adeptly with little effort (like my son), while others take longer to learn and develop (like myself). The question of why, is still a difficult one to answer.
Throughout the history of reading research, two distinct approaches to addressing reading delays have emerged; the first focusing on underlying factors, and the second focusing on the teaching of authentic reading skills and tasks. As educators, we have little control over the former, but we can have a great amount of leverage on the latter. The trick to helping our students grow as readers is knowing where they are on their developmental trajectory, and providing them with the tools needed to move on to the next higher level. For middle and secondary teachers especially, it is helpful to have, not only an understanding of comprehension or confirmation, but also the other stages of reading development.
According to literacy guru Jeanne Chall, it can take twenty or more years for an individual to reach his or her highest level of reading development. She suggests that every person moves through six distinct stages as he or she learns to read (1996). This progression is similar to that of cognitive and language development in that it follows a hierarchical path, beginning with the most basic skills and moving toward the more advanced.
This evolution of reading skill is apparent in the following. Read the excerpt below. As you do, pay close attention to your reading process.
The physiological mechanisms that underlie our responses to environmental signals are still being investigated but they appear to involve neuroendocrine regulatory pathways, including the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the autonomic nervous system. Hormones such as cortisol and catecholamines suppress the immune system and reduce tissue repair. These hormones enhance our responses to stress at the cost of reducing somatic maintenance. (Perlman, 2013).
Now….what skills and functions did you have to rely on as you moved yourself through this text? Did you use decoding skills? If so, when? Was your initial reading smooth or choppy? Was it fast…..or slow? Were there any words that you did not know the meaning of? If so, how did you figure them out? Did you have to engage in any re-reading? At which parts of the text did you slow down to read more carefully? If you had to summarize this passage orally in one sentence, what would you say?
In this activity, it is likely that you engaged in the use of a number of different reading skills. To comprehend the passage fully, you had to rely upon fundamental reading skills such as decoding and reading fluency. You also need to apply your understanding of previously learned vocabulary and background knowledge. In essence, you borrowed skills from every stage of your reading development. These are abilities, which you developed and refined throughout your journey to adulthood; and you now possess a full arsenal of skills in which to use for any reading purpose. If one or more of these skills had been lacking, you may have struggled to grasp the meaning of this text.
Like adults, students need to develop a full repository of reading skills. In our rapidly changing, digital world, students must rely regularly on both basic and advanced reading skills to muddle through increasingly complex information both in print and online. We can help them to do this by making sure, that regardless of where they are in their journey toward literacy, or how long it takes them, they are gaining all that they can from every stage of the process. For those whose quest is more challenging, Expedition LiteracyTM can help.
Chall, J. S. (1996). Stages of reading development. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College .
Perlman, R. L. (2013). Evolution and medicine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.