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Coaching Your Child        < Previous        Next >


Decoding Distress


Q. When my child reads aloud to me, he just stutters along in a monotone. He doesn't have any inflection or emotion in his voice. He makes mistakes and starts over a lot, skips words and gets frustrated real fast. He's 7 and we're getting worried.


What you describe is "decoding distress." The child's brain isn't making the necessary, lightning-quick connections that should allow him to read fluently and accurately by this age.


He is having difficulty running the alphabet letters in the text he sees through his mental filter that should automatically match those symbols to the sounds the letters make and allow him to recognize and pronounce words.


But he's not decoding. It's not his fault. It's the school's. This is what happens when kids aren't taught to read with proper phonics.


A sure sign of decoding distress other than the halting pronunciation, frequent mispronunciation, and frustration you describe is poor reading comprehension. It's rampant in schools today. Children taught to read with the phonograms - the written symbols for the sounds the alphabet letters make - read fluently and musically, with few or no mistakes. Children taught to read by sight, without focusing reading instruction on the powerful advantage of phonics, will stutter, leave words out, stop, fail to decode, and then feel bad about themselves and not want to try again and perhaps be embarrassed in front of the class. It's a vicious circle.


If your son can understand the meaning of spoken language if his "listening comprehension" is good - but he cannot understand the meaning of written language equally well, the problem isn't with him. His school is most likely using the Whole Language philosophy of teaching reading, which is to let the kids guess and skip, not decode.


Without the accuracy and fluency that comes with careful phonics instruction, the reading comprehension of the average Whole Language student falls dramatically behind a phonics reader.


Parents can prevent decoding problems to a large degree by reading aloud daily with and to their children in the preschool and early primary years. Always read with the text in plain sight and work with your child to make those symbol-sound connections.


With a school-age child in the distress you describe, the solution is to run, don't walk, to an outside tutor who uses an effective method such as Spalding Phonics, or learn it and teach it yourself.


Homework: You may be better off finding a tutor through networking with other parents than by going through the schools; often a change in strategy has to come from the outside, and public-school educators often are unaware of the difference between phonics-only reading instruction, and the "eclectic" mixture they use that is ineffective because it relegates phonics to just one of several cues for decoding, and confuses and frustrates the children to the point of dysfunction.


By Susan Darst Williams Coaching Your Child 15 2008


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