Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Good test to fail

A little while ago, A brought home the results of a standardized reading assessment. He was on or close to proficient in most areas, except for the nonsense word assessment, in which he got a zero.

This made me very happy. A nonsense word assessment is when the child is given a list of non-words to read aloud, to see if s/he can apply phonics rules. The "words" would look something like this: gat, mog, fim, stot, bruck, etc.

Reading is about meaning. A's zero in the nonsense word assessment shows me that he gets this. He knows that people put words on a page because they want to say something. In his effors to make meaming out of the above list, he reads it something like this: get, mug, fin, stop, brick.

That's what good readers do. You just did it - you may have noticed my misspellings in the sentence above, but you knew it was meant to be "efforts" and "meaning," not "effors" and "meaming." You changed the words in your mind, whether consciously or unconsciously, so that they would make sense. Because you know what it means to read.

OK, so A gets that words on a page are supposed to mean something. Why is that a big deal? It's a big deal because so many English language learners don't get that.  They don't get it because they aren't taught that. Instead these terribly misguided programs like Reading First - no, I should say these terribly misapplied programs - teach them that reading is about making sounds in response to letters on a page. It doesn't matter if the sounds have meaning. English language learners are being taught to read h-a-t before they have the first clue that the word "hat" means something. They learn this lesson over and over again, and in a couple of years, although they might be speaking English pretty well, their reading comprehension is abysmal. They sound beautiful when they read. But ask them to retell a story, or draw a comparison, or offer an opinion, and they can't do it. At all. And then the teachers start talking about disabilities and learning difficulties. When in fact, they've learned very well, but what they've learned is that reading is all about making the right sounds.

I have seen this and fought against this over and over again. Possibly the most frustrating thing is that there is a very simple solution: Teach oral language first. Read to children. Model for them, by talking about what you read, that reading is about meaning. Read funny books and laugh. Read science books and be amazed. Read biographies and be inspired. Show them, over and over, why you read. And guess what? Eventually they will want to do it, too. Then you can start teaching them phonics.

And if they fail their nonsense word assessment, rejoice, because you know they've learned that reading is supposed to make sense.

So go, A! Keep up the terrible work.


  1. I vividly remember attempting to explain that to parents during parent/teacher meetings. They usually got it but the initial reaction to their child failing a section was panic. So, go A!!! I'm glad he's getting it so well!

  2. Way to fail, A! (And that's great that he's so far along in the other categories.)

  3. Nicely done A! Great post!

  4. preach it!
    can I print this and share it with our school board? :)

  5. Way to go, A! And way to go, Teacher Mom!

  6. I guess the problem arises when the parents aren't readers. What then?

    1. Good question, but when I talk about reading to children and teaching oral English, I mean what teachers should do. If parents can do it too, of course that's great.

  7. Oh, I love this. We brought my adopted son home from China at age 7 1/2. He'd never been to school in China so he never learned to read Chinese. He spoke no English and had no exposure to the English alphabet. I chose to homeschool him. I tried to relax about his age, grade level, etc., but I read aloud constantly. Best thing I've ever done. Now he's 10 and he just read his first chapter book. Reading is progressing more quickly these days as he has a very good spoken vocabulary to draw from. So glad he doesn't have to take a standardized test at this point.