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The Foundational Skills of Reading
Reading is regarded as the most important skill that a child must acquire at school, because one must learn to read in order to be able to read to learn. Unfortunately many children never acquire the skill of reading.
According to Dr. Reid Lyon approximately 20 to 30 percent of school-age children have difficulties learning to read. About 15 million youngsters in the USA do not have access to the wonders of books and other kinds of texts for learning and enjoyment. While these estimates are alarming, they are on the conservative side, he says.
It is imperative that we ensure that children are adequately prepared before we expect from them to acquire the reading process. This requires preparation, just like building a house needs preparation. Before building a house, one needs to lay a foundation. Unless there is a strong and solid foundation, cracks will soon appear in the walls, and with no foundations, the walls will collapse.
In the same way one needs to lay a proper foundation before it becomes possible for a child to benefit from a course in reading. If this foundation is shaky, learning “cracks” will soon appear. In the case of reading, it is important to note that reading is a skill, and that there are other supportive, preparatory, foundational skills that need to be mastered first, before it becomes possible for a child to master the skill of reading. The question is, however, what are these preliminary or foundational skills that need to be mastered first, before a child can learn to read.
A “foundation,” according to the dictionary, is the “natural or prepared ground or base on which some structure rests.” This means that “foundational reading skills” would refer to skills that form the prepared ground or base on which the structure of reading rests. This would further mean that, unless this base has been prepared adequately, no effective reading could take place.
FOUNDATIONAL READING SKILLS
The reading act is a unitary occurrence, meaning that the actions taking place while one is reading occur simultaneously. However, for the purpose of this discussion, these actions will be divided into steps, and a schematic diagram representing these steps of the reading act is shown below. It is suggested that the reader refer to this diagram throughout the rest of this discussion.
Reading must be regarded as an act of communication. There is a communicator (the author of the book that the reader is reading), there is a message (transferred to the reader via symbols on paper), and there is a recipient of the message (the reader).
There are many factors involved in the reception of the message when a person is reading. The first of these is that the reader must pay attention. Paying attention is a body function, and therefore does not need to be taught. However, paying attention as such is a function that is quite useless for the act of learning, because it is only a fleeting occurrence. Attention usually shifts very quickly from one object or one thing to the next. The child must first be taught to focus his attention on something and to keep his attention focused on this something for some length of time. When a person focuses his attention for any length of time, we refer to it as concentration. Paying attention therefore, is the body function that makes the skill of concentration possible, just as the functions of seeing and hearing make the skills of looking and listening possible.
Concentration rests on two legs. First, it is an act of will and cannot take place automatically. The will to focus attention on the message must be sustained in order to carry out all the actions needed to fully comprehend the message. Second, it is also a skill, and therefore has to be taught.
The next step in receiving a written message is that it must be perceived. In other words, perception must take place.
Before one can learn anything, one has to become aware of it through one of the senses. Usually one has to hear or see it. Subsequently one has to interpret whatever one has seen or heard. In essence then, perception means interpretation. Of course, lack of experience may cause a person to misinterpret what he has seen or heard. In other words, perception represents our apprehension of a present situation in terms of our past experiences, or, as stated by the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): “We see things not as they are but as we are.”
Perception in itself consists of a large number of subskills that can all be automated. First, there are various ways of perceptualizing, namely visual, auditory and haptic. The latter includes touch perception and kinesthetic perception. Because we read with our eyes, visual perception plays the most important role in the reading act, and will therefore be discussed at some length.
When a person is reading, visual discrimination must take place. All printed letters are set against a certain background. The most important difference between the letters and the background is that they differ in color. Obviously, the first discrimination will therefore be in terms of color. The second discrimination is in terms of foreground-background. The particular letter, or word, or sentence, that the reader is focused on is elevated to the level of foreground, whereas everything else within the field of vision of the reader (the rest of the page and the book, the desk on which the book is resting, the section of the floor and/or wall that is visible, etc.) is relegated to the background. Our Latin alphabet consists of twenty-six letters, each with its corresponding capital letter with a difference in size and sometimes in shape compared to the lower case counterpart. The letters all differ in form or shape and must be discriminated accordingly. Capital letters, being used at the start of a sentence, sometimes look exactly the same as their lower case counterparts, and must therefore be discriminated mainly with regard to size. The letters in dyslexia and DYSLEXIA may all differ in terms of form and size, but must nevertheless be interpreted as constituting the same word. One also does not only read letters, but thoughts, all compiled from a conglomeration of words. A word is made up of a number of letters arranged in a particular sequence. The reader must therefore be able to discriminate the letters in terms of their positions. If a sketch or picture is included in the text, there must be discrimination of dimensionality as well.
One of the most obvious — and one of the most common — telltale signs of dyslexia is reversals. People with this kind of problem often confuse letters like b and d, either when reading or when writing, or they sometimes read (or write) words like no for on, or pot for top. One invariably also finds that these people find it difficult to distinguish between left and right, or that they find it difficult to cross the middle line. These difficulties are not signs of minimal neurological damage, as is often asserted, but simply signs that not enough had been done to teach these people to distinguish between left and right, or to cross the middle line.
The human body consists of two halves, a left side and a right side. The human brain also has two halves, which are connected by the corpus callosum. Mindful of the wise words of Immanuel Kant that man does not see things as they are but as he is, it is inevitable that a person will interpret everything in terms of his own sidedness. A child or adult, who has not learned to interpret correctly in terms of his sidedness yet, who has not learned to distinguish properly between left and right, will inevitably experience problems when he finds himself in a situation where he is expected to interpret sidedness. (See the Act of Reading diagram higher up — sidedness is a “position in space” interpretation.) One such a situation, where sidedness plays a particularly important role, is when a person is expected to distinguish between a b and a d. It is clear that the only difference between the two letters is the position of the straight line — it is either left or right.
After having discriminated every letter in terms of color, foreground and background, form, size and position, letters must be combined into words. The reader must thus be able to perceive individual parts as a whole. In other words, he must be able to synthesize.
Although the ability to analyze, i.e. to perceive the whole in its individual parts, does play a role in reading, this ability is of the utmost importance in spelling. To be a good speller, one must be able to analyze.
The above events sound very complex, and indeed must be recognized as being just that. In reality they take place all the time — at lightning speed — while a person is reading, but a good reader is unaware of these events because they have been automated. It can be compared to a Spaniard speaking Spanish while doing other things because his knowledge of the language has been automated through regular practice and usage. While speaking, he is not concentrating on grammar, word order, sentence structure, and things like that, but on the contents of what he wants to say. This is only possible because his language has become automated.
However, when a person attempts to speak a language in which he has not become automatic yet, he will necessarily have to divide his attention between the content of his message and the language itself. He will therefore speak haltingly and with great difficulty. This also applies to the act of reading. The child, in whom the above-mentioned foundational skills of reading have not yet become automatic, will read haltingly and with great difficulty. The poor reader is forced to apply all his concentration to the reception of the message, and therefore has “no concentration left” to decode the message.
The decoding of the message is a very important aspect of the reading act. Without being able to decode the message, the receiver cannot understand it. This explains why some children “read” without understanding what they are reading.
Decoding implies that the reader is able to decipher the message, in other words, he is able to ascribe meaning to the written word. This becomes possible first by integrating the message that he is reading with his foreknowledge. Foreknowledge can be defined as the range of one's existing knowledge and past experiences. If one reads something that cannot directly be connected to or tied in with knowledge that one already possesses, one cannot decode or decipher the contents of the message.
A decoding skill that is closely related to that of integration is classification. When a person sees a chair, although he may never have seen a chair exactly like this one, he will nevertheless immediately recognize it as a chair, because he is familiar with the class of objects we call “chair.” This implies that, whenever a name is ascribed to an object, it is thereby put into a specific class of objects, i.e. it is classified.
The Gestalt principle of closure means that the mind is able to derive meaning from objects or pictures that are not perceived in full. W- -re s-re th-t y-- w-ll b- -ble to und-rsta-d th-s s-ntenc-, although more than 25 percent of the letters have been omitted. The mind is quite able to bridge the gaps that were left in the sentence. The idea of closure is, however, more than just seeing parts of a word and amplifying them. It also entails the amplification of the author's message. No author can put all his thoughts into words. This stresses the importance of foreknowledge. If it were possible for an author to put everything related to the subject he is dealing with on paper, the possession of foreknowledge would not have been necessary. That, however, is impossible, as an author can at most present a very limited cross-section of reality and the reader must be able to expand on this before comprehension becomes possible.
Lastly, imagination plays a role in decoding. It is doubtful whether a person really understands something unless he is able to think about it in terms of pictures. When we read or hear a message, the words and thoughts comprising the message call up images in our mind's eye. If this does not occur, the message will not make any sense. If you read or hear a sentence in an unfamiliar language, it will not make any sense to you, simply because none of the words will call up any pictures in your mind's eye. This ability plays a very important role in the decoding of the message. Furthermore, by using one's imagination while reading, one's emotions can be addressed during the reading act.
Only after a person has decoded a message can learning take place. To learn, a person must be able to store something that he has perceived and decoded, so that he will be able to recall this information at a later stage. It is the ability to recall to memory or to remember that makes learning possible.
Memory is one of the foundational skills of learning that is of special importance in the so-called learning subjects at school or university, where information is presented to the learner, and it is expected that he be able to reproduce it as accurately as possible. However, memory is a skill that is also of great importance to the reading act. For example, recognizing the shapes of the different letters comprising a particular word is an act of memory. Every word also consists of letters in a particular sequence, and one has to remember what word is represented by the sequence of letters in question. Simply by changing the sequence of the letters in the word name, it can become mean or amen.