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Finding chunks in the alphabet soup

English Order revisions reflected up-to-date research, says Nicholas Bielby, who explains the theory behind the curriculum. The other day I misread the word embed. I read it as emb'd and I didn't know what it meant. Yet the word itself is phonically regular, so how come I misread it? Evidently I had chunked it as emb-ed and not as em-bed. Anticipating a verb, I had interpreted -ed as the suffix marking the past tense.

Even for a skilled reader, sight vocabulary involves not only whole-word recognition but also subconscious word-building from spelling chunks. Normally, success comes from the chunking of spelling patterns into known, meaningful units. Doing this is one of the key skills in becoming a skilled reader, and this is what "graphic knowledge" in the revised Order is all about.

"Graphic knowledge", as a term, has been coined for the purposes of the Order, neatly paralleling "phonic knowledge". Together they cover the "graphophonic" processes of translating print into recognisable words. The third key skill, "word recognition", covers the construction of a fully processed sight vocabulary. These skills are further bracketed in the Order with "grammatical knowledge" and "contextual understanding" to constitute the five key skills of reading. As a group, these terms indicate a perspective on how children learn to read.

Granted, this perspective isn't transparent in the revised Order. But when we consider the history of the revisions from 1993, the overall perspective becomes clearer. The April 1993 draft horrified almost everybody because it was so complicated, prescriptive and phonics-orientated. But the document was, in part, informed by up-to-date research on reading. In the simplified revised Order, however, many of the signposts to the theory have been edited out.

Can we still disinter the theory underpinning the revised curriculum? The term "phonological awareness" (awareness of the constituent sounds within words) and the kinds of skills identified under the heading "phonic knowledge" show the influence of contemporary research. The emphasis on balance and coherence signifies a single, inclusive view. The balance is the balance between "top-down", meaning-centred strategies and "bottom-up", code-centred strategies. And the coherence lies in the recognition that these strategies are complementary, working in concert to make sense of a text.

Gurus of both traditional phonics (such as Jean Chall) and meaning-centred approaches (like Ken Goodman) agree that the three sources of information that come together in effective reading are graphophonic, syntactic and semantic. That is, effective reading depends on information derived from the print on the page, the child's expectations about how grammar goes, and the child's sense of how the meaning is developing in context. The revised Order specifies that children should be taught to use all three sources of information.

Meaning-centred approaches emphasise word prediction, the child's anticipatory guesses which are then (hopefully) checked against the printed text. And indeed, learner readers do use such strategies, among others. But skilled readers process the print so quickly, compared with prediction, that meaning is used to check and confirm the graphophonic translation of the print (as I did with embed). Progress in reading depends upon getting better and better at word recognition, not upon getting better and better at guessing. This is why the revised Order emphasises the function of contextual understanding as "a checking device".

Development in reading depends upon the development of a sight vocabulary. But building such a sight vocabulary is a complex process. The unlettered sight vocabulary of the pre-school child, depending on arbitrary cues and derived from environmental print, is a very different thing from the sight vocabulary of the skilled reader, who processes virtually every letter and its relationships with surrounding letters so quickly and automatically that it seems instantaneous. The place of phonic and graphic knowledge in development is to facilitate such instant word-recognition skills.

The term "phonic knowledge" in the revised Order does not refer simply to traditional phonics teaching. It is primarily concerned with the relationships between sound patterns and spelling patterns, not with sounding-out routines. The emphasis on identifying spelling chunks runs through the "phonic knowledge", "graphic knowledge" and "word recognition" sections. The underpinning theory is that phonological processes inform the development of the visual identification of meaningful spelling chunks.

So we come back to the significance of "graphic knowledge". The examples suggested are plurals (-s), verb endings (-ing, -ed), derivatives (help, helpful), prefixes and suffixes. These examples highlight morphemes, the minimal units of meaning that compose complex words. In these instances, they are add-on morphemes bearing grammatical and semantic information about, for example, plurality or tense. So what is the significance of morphemic units in reading development?

Skilled reading depends on the ability to recognise whole-word spellings and, in longer or less frequent words, the spelling chunks from which whole words can be put together. And phonological processes tend to identify such chunks according to the familiar sound patterns they represent - for example, rhyme and syllabic patterns. Such patterns may also be morphemes. Reading is about gaining meaning and just as we learn to read -ight as a phonological unit, we learn to read -ation as a morphemic unit. Bussis et al (1985) observed that "the majority of children evidenced attention to the spelling of affixes as they became more proficient readers" and they constructed a store of "sight affixes" to join the "sight words" in their reading vocabularies. This is the conceptual background to the term graphic knowledge.

Development of recognition skills is complex because many processes are going on at the same time. The phonological awareness of rhymes, for example, draws attention to their common spelling patterns in different words, and permits self-teaching by analogy. Inventing spellings draws attention to phonic values and spelling sequences. Applying phonic knowledge to initial letter sequences in words starts to give their spelling patterns significance. The frequency of letters occurring together helps bind them together in patterns that are more swiftly identified than the letters individually. Thus, single-syllable words and syllables generally are readily recognised. Many syllables and rhyme spellings are also morphemes. For example, a child may learn to read "ing" as the rhyming part of "sing". But "ing" can also act as a morpheme, as in the word "talking". In this way spelling patterns are further bound together by having significance at the level of meaning and grammar. Thus a sight vocabulary of words, affixes and other morphemes is constructed. In this way phonic and graphic knowledge contribute to word recognition.

In reading, these bottom-up processes establish the wording of the text, and the top-down grammatical and contextual processes determine how the words go together to make sense. This is the conceptual map of the reading process that underpins the revised Order. Such a map offers a rationale for much of what teachers do anyway, but it also promotes a balanced approach to reading and should give a sharper focus to reading activities and a greater sense of what constitutes significant development in children's reading strategies.

* Nicholas Bielby, lecturer in education, School of Education, University of Leeds, is author of Making Sense of Reading, published by Scholastic.

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