Building Word and World Knowledge

Building Word and World Knowledge

From the author Ken Campbell's speech at the NYC Everyone Reading conference in February 2021.


Let’s open right off – reading is not figuring out with skills how to pronounce each and every word within the language. Of course phonological awareness and phonics are critical tools – don’t get me wrong, I detest the damage the whole language and now many of the balanced literacy people have done -  but decoding is not reading, it is a tool of reading. 

 “Learning to read means learning to bring meaning to a text in order to get meaning from it.”

Many of our children with reading problems are lacking exposure to vocabulary and general knowledge. I am not kidding you when I say I taught middle schoolers who could not answer what planet they lived on, nor country or state. They could not answer where they lived beyond their town – Boardman, Reddick, Buzzard’s Roost, Shiloh. Yes, they couldn’t read, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. 

For reading instruction, these students, many since 2nd or 3rd grades, have been removed from content classes, most often science and social studies, to receive their special reading instruction. We spend thousands on a process to get them help and when I read the reports, about all I get useful out of them is that the child cannot read. I am a data person, well-trained to use a variety of interventions to get growth. Why a school needs special permission to do what it takes to teach a kid to read is beyond me. 

So, we put these children in classes or their parents pay for tutoring or put them in expensive schools where they will be taught all the intricacies of the myriad rules of reading – and many of these children we labeled as dyslexic, some of our brightest minds, will miss science experiments, the songs and history of our culture, and the expanding vocabulary that come from the content area instruction. It gets worse with age. And over time, many, if not most, of our regular education teachers and administrators have come to believe that if you cannot read you do not belong in their class. Or even worse, if you cannot read by 3rd grade, you’ll never read. Yes, I know all about brain plasticity and learning, but I also know the story of Helen Keller.

Why does regular ed think this way? Well, you cannot take a test if you cannot read. You cannot read the chapters or even do the homework. You cannot write. And I guess there is the supposition that you cannot understand.

Au contraire. You can certainly take a test. You could do it orally. There are programs that can read the test to the student and programs that can move speech to text. You can listen, watch and learn. I was a champion tennis player without reading a book on the subject. 

This is language rich – and we are removing our children most in need of language from the richest environments of word and world knowledge. The whole language advocates withheld phonics instruction from needy children, let’s not be like them by withholding language and knowledge opportunities.

It was not all that long ago that we put dyslexic students in self- contained classes where they only had one teacher for an entire school day. Because of their reading difficulties they were not even allowed to participate with their peers in PE, art, music, vocational ed and – get this – not even lunch. And once a child found himself captured by the system and incarcerated in a special ed class – it was a life sentence – a roach motel – you check in but you won’t check out.  In many places in this country –  we still inordinately pull children away from their peers – and stigmatize them. That is punishing. The response of any organism to punishment is escape behavior. 

My professor, mentor, and then friend, Dr. Cecil Mercer had seen my work in action at North Marion Middle School. He thought it had promise and got my permission for five copies of what we were using so his grad students could try it with a self-contained learning disabilities group at Buchholz High School in Gainesville, Florida. Master Degree special ed students would tutor – each kid would get a different tutor each day of the week. I cringed. I was taught consistency and persistency. Establish a working rapport. None of these students could independently read. Imagine someone being in school eleven years and being basically illiterate. What were they doing all that time? Playing with legos? Coloring?  Chess? 

With inclusion and a lot of advocacy and work we have gotten better about placement – at the same time we have been inundated with theories and philosophical reading wars – but the frontlines are not esoteric – in the real world of need I must ask – how are we doing? I need to see measured growth that generalizes into the world and needs of the students – whatever it takes. I am not a reading chauvinist – I am a teacher. 

In one semester these high school students at Buccholz  – Teneisha – moved from 2nd to 4th grade, Urvahsa – 2nd to 6th, Raymond – 4th to 7th – Holly – 4th to 9th – Lucious 2nd to 4th. Can you see that in one semester every one of these students – so handicapped in their academic performance that they were not allowed with their peers – moved 2 or more years in their reading. This was in ten minutes a day, with rookies. That was well over 25 years ago, we have improved – though the nation remains in a reading crisis. I just heard recently of a high school girl who started the program as nonreader is now, in one year, an independent reader. She had been in a well known phonics program for years. We keep getting this kind of growth. If you cannot get a non-reading high schooler moving three years in one year, may I ask what you’re doing and why? 

The word and world knowledge these students received from public schooling was slim or none. But I would damn well bet you they could stay in line while coloring! We have come a long way since these children were excluded from their peers  – disdained as handicapped – called retarded – embarrassed every day – afraid to be seen at school.  You must know that when these children grow up and walk and work among us – they are no longer unusual or special – they’re like you and me. 

We still regularly remove students with reading problems from the content courses of science and social studies. There are reading advocates who wish to take this model down to regular ed in 1st and 2nd grades – to have time to work on the tools of reading more intensely. Stop that insanity. Social studies starts with the home and neighborhood and expands. Science begins with the observable life around us – the land, sea and air. These chauvinistic reading zealots are doing harm not only to the children, but the very credibility of teaching reading from the science of research and product development. Have they forgotten critical language growth for the period of a child’s educational life where brain plasticity for language is at its highest? I do not need an hour a day to teach children the basic tools of phonics or work with phonological – phonemic and morphemic awareness. We can nail these essential tools of reading within the attention span of the students – fifteen or so minutes. This gives us plenty of time left to TEACH – talk, dream, learn. This should not be used to label me whole language or a balanced literacy person. My objective here is to teach reading – and reading without meaning is purely an abstraction. Reading interventions must be language rich and engaging. Every precious minute!

It is time to mention FAPE – a free and appropriate education. It is not appropriate to place a child labeled dyslexic into a varying exceptionalities ZOO. The social results of this cost saving service model has been catastrophic. It appears to me the lower the socio-economic status of the school’s environs, the less qualified the instructors and the lower the expectations. The learning potential of the student from the Bronx varies little from those of the rich private schools. The rich kids, for the most part, get the more intense and relevant instruction. This is neither democratic nor appropriate. Parents should not have to pay for their children to learn to read when in the US we have nearly the most per capita spent on public schooling on the planet. We are failing and the people know it. 

Phonics lessons are not reading. It takes one hell of a teacher to make them interesting and fun. Multiplication fact memorization and working pages of math problems are calculation tools. Not math.  Many teachers are so transfixed on teaching the tools or working from within the framework of a philosophy of reading, that they completely miss the point – and thus the goal of instruction. We do not teach phonics and breaking the code for the pure sake of a child being able to decode every word thrown at them. Knowing the rules and being able to “read” the word LYNX is but a step. It is pretty useless unless you know what a lynx is. 

When a story or word does not make sense, you move from the language part of the brain to the processing part. Thus, if done often, you lose all sense of meaning from a passage. It is tiring. Same thing happens when you must sound out words, you have moved from the language part of the brain, Reading is language, we must get those words on the page talking to us. When we read and understand, pleasure centers often light up. I know full well a Dear John letter does not light up pleasure. But …  “We went to the beach” can do it.

Our language is so filled with almost incoherent intricacies that we could teach a new rule every day of the week for three or four years and still not be done. Our children need to gain three thousand or so words a year just to keep up. Let’s do it right! 

Many of our children are sounding out words at very low rates with high percentage accuracy. They sound like robots. Yes, they can sometimes answer comprehension questions because they are smart, not because they have actually read something. Fluent reading combines rate, accuracy, intonation and word/world knowledge. In our remedial classes and instruction we are boring these children out of their skulls – of course, the better the instructor, the less boring the intervention. Teaching the tricks of the trade in phonics does little or nothing in the way of increasing a child’s word/world knowledge. Yes, teach the tools! I need a hammer and saw to build a house – but moreso, I need a carpenter. 

Many children now hate school, for them, it’s punishing. Their self-esteem in school is rock bottom. They are the bottom of the pecking order. Yet, we persist in our failures. 

How many lessons must a child go through to be able to decode lynx or chalet? What good does it honestly do to be able to pronounce a word in print with no clue as to its meaning? Do you honestly think that all children must have rule-based teaching to be able to read such words? Let’s look at just how crazy from the child’s point of view the word chalet is. To actually decode the word you must have reached lessons on the rules of anglicized French.

ch making the sh sound

as in Chevrolet, Chevy, chauvinist, chef, chic, brochure, cache, champaign, niche, charlatan, chivalry

Out of these words, our third and fourth graders would probably encounter less than a third of them. Yet, as we look at chalet – there’s another rule that hits us. What do we do with that et?

Now we have prepared our student to go to a fancy Southern seafood restaurant and order their world famous smoked mullet dip. “We have no dip from the Malay Peninsula.”

et making the long a sound

ballet, buffet, ricochet (both rules!), beret, filet

And eau says long o 

bureau, noveaux, plateau

But not beautiful

How about some lessons in German and Spanish that contradict the phonics rules of English? Don’t call the roll and ask for Jesus Garcia! 

And then we have Greek and Latin roots! See, we can teach rules forever. I do not advocate for ignoring these, I just don’t see them as essential – I often must teach words and meanings without going into the intricacies of the origin of their pronunciation. As our English becomes more and more international and our people become more diverse, our language will continue to add words as pronounced in their land and culture of origin. Comprende? Capiche?

I was working with a student from Greensboro, North Carolina when we hit that word chalet. With his good phonics skills he said “challet”. I immediately corrected him thus, “Chalet, you know one of those rich guy wooden houses with the big, slanty roofs on the tops of mountains? When the timed reading was completed, I went back to the word. He told me what it meant. I asked him to use it in a sentence. He did. “I saw a rich man’s chalet on the top of that mountain.”

Good. Do you know there are a lot of chalets you can stay in at the ski resorts like Beech Mountain? Then we could talk about ski resorts in the country, in the world. Which would better serve the needs and interests of this middle school student? Would a lesson on the French ch and et have been more meaningful, relevant and useful? It is crucial that in the pursuit of teaching reading, we as teachers, tutors or parents do not neglect teaching about the world around us. 

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Liquid error (layout/theme line 2862): Could not find asset snippets/spurit_uev-theme-snippet.liquid