Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Learning to read to yourself: how do we do it?

I remember the first word that I realized that I had read silently to myself. The big black letters on the yellow yield sign:

What was the first word (or words) that you remember reading to yourself?

I remember that it was as my mother was driving us back home after dropping my father at the Pleasant Hill BART station. I remember it, because it was the first time that I recalled seeing the sign - or actually trying to read it - and that the pronunciation came to me in my mind.

Why did that happen to me at that time? What if I had been given a different traffic sign? A simple one like "STOP" would likely have been one that my parents had already told me, and so I might not have recognized whether I was reading it to myself. However, what would the 6-year-old me made of "PED XING"?
source (with interesting story): Palm Springs Life

It took me years to figure out what it meant! No, I never asked any one, plus we moved to Japan when I was 8 years old, and I was suddenly confronted with the fact that stop signs didn't have to be red octogons!
 source: Wikipedia

Still, the 6-year-old me that had silently read "YIELD" knew that I was doing it slowly. I knew that I was still sounding it out in my head. But that 6-year-old me also knew that it was AWESOME that I just did that. It was - for a very short time - my little secret. It took me very little time to realize that adults and big kids could do this, too, when they read signs and books and newspapers, and then I wanted to be able to do it, too. (After all, as the younger brother, I saw my big brother read things and be told to read books; I wanted to do that, too!)

I remember that, years later in 7th grade, parents enrolled my brother and I into a speed-reading class as an after school activity. (Yes, really interesting.) We were taught how to skim pages, how to judge the development of ideas, and the like. One thing that we did there, though, was to watch as others read through a page, to see how the eyes of our group members tracked the words. My eyes read each word, line-by-line. My brother's eyes - the bookworm that he was already at that time - skimmed down the page, with very little side-to-side motion. (This is probably why he can devour a ~500 page novel in a couple hours if he wants to, and it is probably a root cause as to why he rarely buys novels anymore.) I know that I have improved from that word-by-word silent reader into a skimmer of texts. It helps that I now recognize entire words instead of reading each word as I come to it. It also helps that my teaching assistant position at the University of Michigan is one in which I read a lot of students' writing, and need to be able to immediately recognize when someone misspells a word for another word (like "form" instead of "from", "compliment" instead of "complement", or other words that look similar).

But how did I go from sounding out "YIELD" in my head ("subvocalization") when I was starting 1st grade to fluently reading Dune (that 412-page tome of rather dense and tangential writing) by the middle of 9th grade? Or, to put it another way, how did I go from reading Frog and Toad books when I was six years old to reading the entire Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series (all 2384 pages), all seven books of the Deathgate Cycle (all 3016 pages), the Riftwar Saga,  dozens of novels (and several more thousand pages) from various Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms series, and others (including school reading, I'm sure...) all by the time I was fifteen?

Well, there's a new study that will investigate the early portion of this trend from trudging through "kids' books" to plowing through evermore novels: how children come to learn how to read to themselves.
Researchers at the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR) at Florida State University will tackle that paradox over the next four years. Funded by a $1.6 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, a team headed by FCRR researcher Young-Suk Kim will examine a poorly understood area of literacy: the relationship between oral and silent reading, and how those skills, in turn, relate to reading comprehension.

"One of the reasons why silent reading has not been paid attention to sufficiently is that it is difficult to measure," said Kim, also an assistant professor in Florida State's College of Education. "The other piece is, people may just assume that, if you read well orally, then you'll also read well silently."

"Initially, kids sound out each letter, then put all the sounds together, and then make a word," explained Kim, a former classroom teacher. "As their reading develops further, they will be able to do that in their minds. But initially, it's not going to be as efficient or fast."

Beginning silent readers often sound words out in their heads, a cumbersome process called subvocalization.

"What we ultimately want is instantaneous recognition without subvocalization because that's faster," Kim said. "But we don't know how that process happens."

Until recently, measuring silent reading was difficult: After all, you can't hear the child's progress. But researchers can now see this progress, with the help of advanced eye-tracking technologies that follow students' eye movements as they read text on a computer screen.
That sounds interesting. I hope that in 5 years or so, we will have some better insight into how we go from reading everything out loud - sounding it out as we speak - to subvocalization (like what I did with the "YIELD" sign) to reading quickly, quietly, and (hopefully) fluently to ourselves.

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