What does it take to internalize the cipher?

We recently examined Phillip Gough and Michael Hillinger’s 1980 paper, Learning to Read: An Unnatural Act, in which they made a neat analogy of learning to decode an alphabetic writing system to cryptanalysis. As a part of this cryptanalysis, children aren’t simply learning to decode, but more precisely, learning to decipher the written code. This distinction highlights that learning to read in English is not driven by paired-associative learning, but rather by internalizing an algorithm, a statistical, systematic, quasi-regular mapping.

This point is a sharp one because what they were saying is that we can’t teach such a cipher directly. We can’t just hand a kid the codebook.

So when I saw a reference recently to another Gough paper called Reading, spelling, and the orthographic cipher, co-written in 1992 with Connie Juel and Priscilla Griffith, I knew I needed to read this one, too.

This later paper makes many of the same points that the 1980 paper does, but with added depth and empirical studies to back it up. In this post, I’m going to pull out a few quotes from the paper that I found interesting to ruminate a little further on this idea of a cipher and implications for instruction.

This is the challenge of the English cipher. 26 letters map ~44 phonemes in a quasi-regular manner, with spellings and morphemes amalgamated from Anglo Saxon, Latin, and Greek origins.

And context is not enough to determine most unfamiliar words, despite what three-cueing may tell you. Readers must be able to recognize words, and nearly instantaneously.

I’d add a wrinkle to this: the linguistic skills required for comprehending the language of written text require more effort (at least initially, most especially within a discipline of study), as decoding does. The more exposure to this written form of language, the better. This is why read-alouds from the earliest ages are so important.

But there is evidence suggesting that indeed, listening comprehension and reading comprehension are more or less equivalent, when decoding is taken out of the equation. I don’t know how to resolve this, but it doesn’t make sense to me that we could equate listening to a story or informational read-aloud as equivalent to listening to a friend tell us about something that happened to them earlier. The language of written text is decontextualized, it is abstract. Rarer words and sentences are used. We have to make more inferences to fill in the blanks. More on this in future posts — I’m on a big kick around the power of interactive read-alouds, most especially for students newer to the English language. Back to Gough et al.:

This made me think about students new to the English language, and how they do not necessarily have that unfamiliar word as a firm part of their lexicon, either in its phonological form nor in its semantic meaning. This means a teacher must ensure that instruction on a word’s coded form must also be conducted in direct association with its meaning. Furthermore, a teacher can make connections between the English word form and meaning to the potentially more familiar forms and meaning in a student’s home language.

Now we get to really interesting part about internalizing the cipher, the cryptanalysis that a new reader must undertake:

As I pointed out in another post, this appears to be an interesting point of convergence between Ken Goodman and Phillip Gough: they both claim that learning to read can’t be taught directly. Here Gough et al. claim that even in the case of synthetic phonics, the most direct and explicit form of teaching grapheme-phoneme correspondences, it’s still not necessarily enough to get an individual child all the way there. Each individual child needs to internalize the algorithm of the code.

Should we teach rules? What rules should we teach, and when? There is no consensus on an exact scope and sequence for phonics instruction, only that it must be structured and systematic. Most sequences are organized around the general principle of easier to harder.

Gough et al. make an interesting conjecture regarding what it is that is being internalized. This also connects to a wider debate about what must be taught explicitly via direct instruction vs. gained implicitly via adequate opportunity to hear and see patterns of spoken and written forms and meaning. There’s also some debate about the teaching of “rules.”

There’s more interesting items in this paper to consider, but I’ll leave it there, as I think we’ve got some good food for thought. How do we get an individual child to internalize the cipher in the most effective way based on that individual child’s experiences with spoken and written language?

Is a synthetic phonics approach maximally effective and efficient for all children? Is it possible that students new to the English language may benefit from a flexible approach that brings in analytic and embedded phonics methods to ensure words are understood in their phonological and morphological forms and meaning while learning to deconstruct and reconstruct them? Is it possible some kids may need far more explicit phonics instruction, while some may need far less?

Some more reading along these lines:


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