How are you able to read this? Hanover Area co-hosts a literacy lesson online

Mark Guydish, The Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
·3 min read

Feb. 23—How many words do you know without thinking about it? (Answer: 30,000 to 70,000).

How many times do kids (or you) need to be exposed to a word to make it part of your lexicon ? (Answer: From second grade up, 1 to 4 times).

How fast does your brain recognize words? (Answer: 1/20th of a second).

School psychologist/university professor and noted reading researcher David Kilpatrick covered these and a wide range of other topics in an online presentation co-hosted by Hanover Area School District Thursday that drew hundreds of educators in the region who wanted to learn, as the presentation was titled, "What Educational Administrators Need to Know about literacy."

Kilpatrick started with the most basic — and maybe most mistaken — notion: We don't write words, we write phonemes, representation of the sound of a single syllable. He contrasted this with learning Chinese, where the symbols represent words and readers must memorize thousands of characters.

"When we read we're not sounding out words as we go along, the words are popping out at us," because we recognize the phonemes represented by the letters.

The success of learning to read by phonemes is evident in how fast children expand vocabularies. "Believe it or not, from second grade on, children only need to see brand new words one to four times, that's it," he said. "If that seems kind of surprising, consider kids might go from kindergarten to first grade and know, what, 50 words? 100 word? 200 words? But then they enter third grade two years later and now they know anywhere from two to four or five thousand words."

Learning words as phonemes also makes it easier to figure out new words in context of a sentence, he added, sounding the words out and then getting the meaning from use in the document. "Children good at sounding out words are also good at remembering words."

Most adults have 40,000 to 70,000 words in their "Orthographic Lexicon," yet the vast majority of those words were learned with no effort. Once you know the meaning, you usually remember it. "That's important to realize," Kilpatrick said, because it means learning literacy is different from learning math, or history facts, or geography names.

"The issue of memory for words should be central in our minds" in trying to help students learn to read," he said. He argued that teachers must distinguish between teaching and learning. A common misconception: Children learn to read in different ways." For reading, Kilpatrick argued, there is only one way to learn. What teachers need to understand is "We teach reading in different ways; they learn to read proficiently in only one way."

Kilpatrick took a short dive into what many might consider irrelevant to reading but, he argued is pivotal: "All skilled readers can read nonsense words, even if not taught phonics."

He pointed out that "every new word a child has not seen before is functionally a nonsense word." And many words, broken into syllables, are groups of nonsense words. "Take a word like remember. 'Ber' is not a word," he said. "'Mem is not a word. Neither is 'R-E'.

"The correlation between how good you are at sounding out nonsense words and how good you are at real words is extremely high," he added, "Being good at one means you are going to be good at the other." In fact, when newly encountered words are not sounded out, they are poorly remembered.

Once he spelled out the fundamentals of how we learn to read, Kilpatrick talked extensively about the shortcomings of most conventional methods for teaching reading, particularly to struggling students, and the techniques that should be adopted.

The online seminar session was arranged by Hanover Area, Old Forge School District and the Scranton Education Improvement Organization. The entire seminar was recorded and is available via YouTube through a link on the Hanover Area website, hanoverarea.org

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