It was one of those supermarket moments. The young man at the checkout looked at the long red stalks topped with exuberant green foliage and asked my wife what it was. My heart went out to him. To have reached your teenage years without knowing the sensuous delights of rhubarb crumble was almost unbearable – far superior to the traditional teenage delights of sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll, but then I am well over sixty and he is, perhaps, sixteen. And perhaps he just did not recognise rhubarb in its raw state and, in any case, I digress.
My wife telling him the name of the product did not seem to help him to locate it on his checkout touch screen. We waited. In desperation, I hissed “Tell him it’s r-H-u …”. Problem (finally) solved.
As if I needed any reminding, this served to illustrate yet again the importance of factors other than decoding (phonically or otherwise) in reading and, indeed, spelling. To be literate, to be able to read and write (and spell) with reasonable proficiency, it is not enough to be able to decode or encode words and text. You actually have to know what you are reading or writing about. You need knowledge.
This sounds painfully obvious on the surface: how could it be otherwise? But a sole preoccupation with decoding and encoding, especially when teaching low-progress readers, can sometimes distract one from the equally important task of teaching … well, stuff. It is all very well to be able to read aloud “The rodent consumed the gorgonzola” but, effectively, barking at print is all that will be achieved unless you know what a rodent is, what consume means and that gorgonzola is a type of cheese.
The problem is, of course, that learning quite a bit of this ‘stuff’ actually comes about via reading. Consequently, if you are poor at reading, you will tend to read far less and to learn less general knowledge. Moreover, many of the words and terms that we learn do not crop up frequently in everyday conversation; we only encounter them in books. Hence, low-progress readers experience what Keith Stanovich calls ‘the Matthew Effect’ whereby the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; those who can read well, read more and learn more; those who read poorly, read less and hence learn less.
All of this leads to the rather obvious point that we need to teach ‘stuff’ to low-progress readers as well as how to decode effectively and efficiently. In recent years, there has been a noticeable and welcome shift among those interested in teaching reading effectively to focus on all five of the five ‘big ideas’ of reading instruction; to give equal prominence to vocabulary and comprehension as to phonemic awareness, phonics and fluency. We also need to focus on the acquisition of general knowledge about the world and to find ways of bringing low-progress readers up to speed with what typically developing readers are already likely to know. To contemplate a world without rhubarb in it is just too sad.