Musings about language and literacy and learning

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.

“The orthographic cipher of English (in short, the cipher) is very complex. A simple cipher would map each letter onto a single phoneme and each phoneme onto a single letter. But English has only 26 letters to map onto more than three dozen phonemes, so it could not be simple; either a letter must represent more than one phoneme, or some phonemes must be represented by more than one letter. Moreover, English orthography was woven by history (Scragg, 1974), and like most such fabrics the basic pattern has been stitched and darned, and altered and augmented many times.”

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.

“Words that are predictable tend to be short and common, whereas words that are unpredictable tend to be long and uncommon. Thus context will fail children exactly where they most need help.”

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.

“This is not to equate literacy with word recognition; there is much more to reading than recognizing words. After recognizing the word letter, readers must decide whether it means a character or a missive; they must disambiguate it. After deciding on the meaning of each word in the sentence Juan showed her baby pictures, readers must decide whether baby or pictures is the direct object; they must parse the sentence. After understanding each sentence in a discourse, readers must assemble them into a larger framework; they must build a discourse structure. And after understanding the discourse, readers must integrate it with what they already know; they must assimilate the text.

But readers must also do these things when they listen. These are linguistic skills, not just of reading, but of comprehension in general. So we equate literacy not with word recognition, but rather with the product of that skill and com prehension (Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Hoover & Gough, 1990; Tunmer & Hoover, this volume). Reading “R” equals the product of decoding “D” and comprehension “C”, or RD X C.”

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.:

“What children need is a way to recognize novel words on the basis of their form. We should remember that the vast majority of these words are already known to children in their phonological form, for in the early grades almost all of the words that readers encounter are already part of the child's vocabulary. So if there was a way to convert the printed form into a phonological form, children could readily recognize them.

Fortunately, an alphabetic language like English affords a mechanism that works for many of its words. An alphabetic orthography is based on a system of rules that map letter strings onto phonological forms; the letters of printed words represent the phonemes of spoken ones. If children could internalize this system, they would have a way of transforming the novel into the familiar, and they could decode the message.”

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:

“In making this assertion, we are trying to make three points. First, we argue that learning is distinct from teaching, that whatever or however they might be taught, what will determine how children read is what they internalize. Second, we argue that if they are to read with any degree of skill, they must internalize the cipher. That is, we argue that there is only one way to read well and that is with the aid of the cipher. Thus however children are taught, whether by phonics, whole language, or some eclectic method, they must master the cipher, or they will read poorly if at all. Third, we argue that even when the attempt is made to teach the cipher directly, as in synthetic phonics, the rules that children are taught are not the rules that they must internalize.”

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.

“As we have pointed out elsewhere (Gough & Hillinger, 1980), the rules of phonics are explicit, few in number, and slow. In contrast, the rules of the cipher are implicit, very numerous, and very fast. Our assumption is that the two are distinct. Indeed, we are intrigued by the suggestion that what the child has internalized are not rules at all but might instead be a system of analogy (Goswami, 1986) or even a connectionist system (Seidenberg & McClelland, 1989; Seidenberg, this volume). Whatever the form of the cipher, whether it consists of rules, analogies, or connections, we contend that it does not consist of the rules taught consciously in phonics.”

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:

#reading #implicit #explicit #rules #internalize #phonics #cipher #cryptanalysis