Here’s another directive you might have heard (one we’re supposed to tell our students) that’s widely accepted even though I believe it, too, can be misguided: “Every time you encounter a word in the text that you don’t know, stick out a finger. If, by the time you reach the end of the page, you’ve popped out all five fingers, close the book. It’s too hard for you to read independently on your own.”
Known as the five-finger rule, this advice doesn’t jibe with what the Common Core Standards now ask of us regarding complex text, nor with what we know about language. Simply put: language is redundant. The information in every sentence is signaled in more ways than one. Indeed, language circles back on itself, creating cohesive chains of meaning that readers can follow across a text, picking up clues, not unlike Hansel and Gretel following breadcrumbs through the dark woods.
When we cut kids off after just five missed words, we short-circuit their search for meaning. We stop them from attempting to make sense of the text before them.
Linguist Steven Pinker makes the point with this exercise:
Thanks to the redundancy of language, yxx cxn xndxrstxnd whxt X xm wrxtxng xvxn xf X rxplxcx xll thx vxwxls wxth xn x.
Or, consider this sentence: The girls are feeding their chickens. We encounter four cues that signal plurality: the <s> on girls, the are form of be, the plural possessive pronoun their, and the <s> on chickens. As language educator Kenneth Goodman notes, “Redundancy is one way language makes up for ambiguity; it provides extra cues to the same information.”
And this brings us to another nugget of conventional wisdom that’s also all-wrong and deserves to go the way of the grumpy teacher who refuses to smile before Christmas: Reading is getting the words. I disagree. Reading is a process of constructing meaning from the complex, naturally redundant network of syntactic, semantic, and graphophonic information that comprises written language. Hence, in the grand scheme of a whole text, each individual word that makes up the text is relatively unimportant.
Consider this passage from the Armstrong Sperry story, “The Ghost of the Lagoon.”
The island of Bora Bora, where Mako lived, is far away in the South Pacific. It is not a large island—you can paddle around it in a single day—but the main body of it rises straight out of the sea, very high into the air, like a castle. Waterfalls trail down the faces of the cliffs. As you look upward, you see wild goats leaping from crag to crag. Mako had been born on the very edge of the sea, and most of his waking hours were spent in the waters of the lagoon, which was nearly enclosed by the two outstretched arms of the island
If we require our students to follow the five-finger rule, they might not make it past the first two lines. After all, island and castle are relatively low frequency words—and Bora Bora, Mako, and South Pacific are proper nouns, which kids need to learn how to read around (consider how you handle the Russian names in Dostoyevsky!). Each individual word embedded in this particular opening passage, which reflects Sperry’s brilliant efforts to establish the setting of his story, work together to create a highly supportive network of meaning. What a shame to deprive kids of the riveting “Ghost of the Lagoon” just because, in the first two lines, they encounter five words they might not know! If they’re allowed to press on, the additional text provides more support, making it easier—not harder—to construct meaning and yes, eventually crack open even the unknown words.
As Ken Goodman pointed out years ago, it’s easier to read a whole text than just a paragraph; easier to read a paragraph than just a sentence; and easier to read a sentence than a single word. More text provides more support for the reader.
Take for example twelve-year-old LaTeesha; she didn’t recognize the word coyote the first time she encountered it in the story “Sheep Dog.” But as she read deeper into the story, following cohesive chains of meaning that included predator, hunter, and attack—she suddenly exclaimed, “I know! Coyote!”
When readers encounter words they don’t know, they should ask themselves, “What would make sense here?” If they don’t know, they can backtrack and see if it helps to review the text they’ve already processed—or, they can forge ahead. All readers have their best shot at comprehension when they’re immersed in whole, cohesive text. Indeed, in this way, even words that stumped them the first time may—just like LaTeesha’s coyote—suddenly make sense.
What do you tell your students if they come to a word they don’t know? What strategies do you suggest they use?
For more about the importance of working with whole text, see Jennifer Serravallo’s Independent Reading Assessment available through Scholastic.