What the Heck Are 'Word Attack Skills'?

According to our literacy experts, if children are to become expert readers, they have to learn "word attack skills."  Okay, that's jargon we don't really need.  But let's go with it.  What are these word attack skills that the experts are talking about?

At this point, we are entering an alternative universe.  Your common sense will be offended, and your credulity will be stretched.  For, as we'll see, our Education Establishment has been searching for literacy in all the wrong places.

One major reading site prescribes what children must do in great detail:

Most experienced readers use a variety of strategies to understand text. Research has shown that teachers can, and should, teach these strategies to beginning readers. The following strategies can help students understand any text in any subject: Make Predictions  ...  Visualize  ...  Ask and Answer Questions ... Retell and Summarize ... Connect the Text to Life Experiences, Other Texts, or Prior Knowledge ... Model and instruct students: Use Picture Clues. Look at the picture. Are there people, objects, or actions in the picture that might make sense in the sentence? ... Look for familiar letter chunks ... Read each chunk by itself ... Connect to a Word You Know ... Think of a word that looks like the unfamiliar word ... Compare the familiar word to the unfamiliar word. Decide if the familiar word is a chunk or form of the unfamiliar word ... Use the known word in the sentence to see if it makes sense ... Read the sentence more than once. Think about what word might make sense in the sentence. Try the word and see if the sentence makes sense. Keep Reading: read past the unfamiliar word and look for clues ... Use Prior Knowledge: Think about what you know about the subject of the book, paragraph, or sentence.

Now imagine a child in elementary school actually trying all these tricks one by one.  (The child cannot read the sentence even once, but the solution is to read the sentence "more than once.")  Imagine millions of hours spent on techniques that experience has shown are largely a waste of time.  In effect, each sentence becomes a riddle that must be solved.  Reading is hard work, indeed.

Please note that there is vast institutional momentum built up around some of these "strategies."  Publishers make money preparing books to tell teachers how to do things that nobody should bother with.  You're probably seeing why we have so many millions of functional illiterates and so much financial waste.

The aforementioned site does include one good piece of advice: "Sound Out the Word."  But this advice – i.e.,  phonics – is only 10% of the presentation.  It pretty well gets drowned out by the unhelpful advice.

Furthermore, the word attack skills discussed so far are only part of the clutter.  Another site says:

One of the most popular and widely referenced models for word recognition is the Three Cueing Systems. This model suggests that there are three cues that good readers make use of to identify individual words in text ... The first and most important cue is semantics (sometimes called context) ... [W]hen children come to a word they do not know, they can 'guess' based upon the context. The second cue is syntax. English places restrictions on the order that words can be placed in a meaningful sentence, so when semantics and syntax are both considered by a young reader, the model suggests that they can make an even more educated 'guess' about individual words in the passage. The third, and least important cue, according to this model, is the letter-sound information (orthographic information).

That is, phonics.

This approach is empirically a fraud because, in fact, context can rarely tell even smart, educated adults what a word means.  Just cross out any noun or verb on any page and give it to a friend with this challenge: can you identify this word?  Typically, there are many, many solutions.  (For example: "The xxxx was clumsy and bumped into a qqqq.")  Furthermore, semantics is a sophisticated way of looking at things.  Would children in elementary grades have a good sense of what semantics could possibly mean?  

The basic thrust of the three-cueing system is to suppress phonics.  This make-believe system has been a destructive epidemic for more than 50 years.  Kenneth Goodman provided the sophisticated sophistries to keep this thing going.  By the way, he originally taught that kids need a four-cueing system, the last one being "pragmatic."

Another famous literacy professor recently stated: "In the act of reading we use the knowledge stored in our cortex to constantly reach out and predict the meanings of words in the sentences we are about to read."  Really?  Doesn't that sound psychic?

Meanwhile, as these dubious methods are pushed upon the kids, they are also being told to memorize lists of sight-words, another dead end.

Here's an interesting summary of the whole mess, as told by a teacher:

One day, a parent complained that her child couldn't sound out the words in his home reader. Berys advised the parent not to expect the child to sound out, but to encourage him to look at the picture, read ahead, have a guess, etc. Then if he still couldn't get the word, just read it for him.

Then a funny thing happened – a Eureka moment.  The teacher realized that "what she had just said made no sense."  And this was after years of saying it!  (She did her homework and eventually became a phonics publisher.)

Skills, a plural, is the beginning of the trick here.  There is actually only one word attack skill – namely, a child sees a letter and converts it into a sound.  There is no guessing.  There's no need to discuss prior knowledge, semantics, cues, or the rest of it.  For example, the child sees the symbol D and converts it into the letter-sound duh.  That's reading.

tutor/parent summed up her grimly comical experiences this way: "Then I tutored other kids, and they would tell me their teachers tell them to look for context clues, and they would not read until I gave them some background first, so they could guess…UGGGGG."

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