Multi-syllabic language as barriers to reading: Part 1

My last blog focused on the problems of children who are falling behind in primary – the disadvantage gap. I outlined four areas for intervention: speedy recognition of ‘sight’ words (you, your, should, they – as words not spelled phonetically that must be learned whole), phonics, use of context, followed by focused teaching of subject vocabulary, tied-in with the phonics being taught as part of the intervention strategy.

Listening to young people at Key Stage 3 read has illuminated key points about how the lack of these skills present barriers to every aspect of literacy: in particular, the abstract language of multi-syllabic words.

Reading is built upon the foundations of oral language. Children for whom English is not their first language may struggle with basic vocabulary or different sentence structures. Such children may phonetically decode, using phonics easily – without understanding. Even when English is a first language, many children, particularly those who are disadvantaged socially, or through poverty, arrive in school starved of the oral language needed to access early reading schemes. 

Phonics is a major reason for reading fall-back, but cannot be completely separated from oral language competence. A significant proportion of Year 7 students who read to me demonstrated adequate decoding of the full range of single syllable words. Their difficulties often began with words of two or more syllables – eg. embarrassing, radical, stationary, security, generation. Such words are often abstract, with obscure meanings, and depending on sentence length, tend to equate with reading ages between nine and eleven. Within this broad range, main phonic groups are generally known and instantly recognised. So, the barrier to improvement from around a RA of nine plus is often use of multi-syllabic language. Read on….

Language is complex, but we can think of it as inner and outer worlds of communication. Our types of speech differ according to who we are talking to. So, most secondary school students converse fluently and easily, though differently, with their parents, friends, teachers, or people in local shops. This is the language of close community: often using non-standard English that is functional and informal according to the ‘who and what’: our daily inner world of communication. 

Listening to one student read her fiction book reminded me that even dialogue can be difficult if far removed from the words and phrases students commonly use. Her reader was mainly dialogue, and contained lots of slang and idiomatic English usage that this girl was unfamiliar with. So, though she could read the simple words, understanding these as colloquial turns of phrase, was beyond her. The book’s content, though well-matched to her assessed reading age, featured the inner world of a different type of community from her own. 

What then do I mean by that outer world? This is the language of most non-fiction texts, magazines and books: the formal, standard English of TV newsreaders and presenters, and of the National Curriculum. It is the language of learning that takes us beyond our personal world of daily communication. This outer world, by its very nature, is of course the world of subject learning and educational achievement, for which success depends on the acquisition of specific language and types of communication. Such language is used to describe aspects of outer space, compare different countries in Geography, or discuss experiments in Science. It is also the language of classic books that still dominate English literature (National Curriculum): which so many students struggle to access. 

We are back to the issue of multi-syllabic words, with abstract meanings, as major barriers to raising reading ages beyond basic phonics. Having briefly focused on why, what are schools to do about it? That is the question. Any intervention must begin with the language students are expected to read and understand. 

The focus of my next blog! 

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