a new fixation continued …
In my last post I wrote about the books I’ve been reading with – or rather alongside – my 10 year old son and the insights we’ve shared into how we “grow” language through reading.
This is another of our conversations, this time on the way to school. After the Christmas break we adopted a pup. She’s six months old and walks the kids to school every morning. As she’s a new element in our morning routine she’s often the main topic of conversation. So, one morning, we’re walking to school and I say, “look, she’s loping!” “loping?” “yes, like Wolf.” (The books we’ve been reading are set in the forests of Northern Europe 6000 years ago. Wolves play an important part.)
“Loping? I thought it was looping!” in disappointed indignation. I explained the difference. The indignation didn’t go away! “I know the difference, I just thought it was looping, I prefer looping, I’m going to keep reading it as looping!”
What interested me was the meaning making and storage process behind this one “misunderstanding”. My son knew loop, he didn’t know lope, as he read the word he cast around for a word that was already in his vocabulary that would match the shape of the word on the page, and in order to do this he sounded out the word in his head. And having “heard” it, he stored it as another layer of meaning for the word loop.
No real problem with that, it didn’t spoil his enjoyment of the book, it didn’t impair his understanding of the story or the creation of Wolf”s imaginary world in his mind. But what it did do was short-circuit any opportunities for noticing and reinforcing the word lope in speech. In our previous conversation we’d talked about how he’d noticed the word kin – phonologically so much easier to store – in conversation after learning it in his book. The same didn’t happen with lope till I pointed it out.
Which brings me to another loop – the phonological loop (click here for a video that explains the term) and a new, more personal understanding of the importance of pronunciation in reading (thanks to Rachael Roberts and Robin Walker for the online paper trail that led me to explore this phenomenon in more depth).
The term was coined by Baddeley in his research into working memory. In his model of working memory, words (both spoken and written) are committed to our working memory via the phonological loop ie we sound out the words in our heads, we silently articulate them and through articulating them we commit them to our memory. If we don’t know, or can’t guess, what a word sounds like, we can’t remember it, and we can’t recall it. This is an aspect of learning through reading that I’ve been neglecting with my classes.
So, what are the implications? Well, in the case of my son, I guess the more we talk about the books he’s reading and share our favourite passages, the more likely it is that we’ll straighten out some of those loops. In terms of L2 readers I guess it suggests to me that fostering the same kind of conversations when encouraging extensive reading would probably throw up similar “loops”.
And in terms of using reading texts in class, and intensive study of those texts, I think I need to give a little more time and thought to sounds. Maybe stop and look at short passages where there are potential sound/spelling problems, ask students to notice any differences between the way they hear the word in their head and the way it sounds out loud, ask them to recast the new word in a new context, drill it, repeat it, come back to it again later.
(More and more workbooks and even coursebooks offer audio recording of reading texts these days. I guess this might be one good way of exploiting them – and training students to exploit them too.)
If I’ve understood the function of the phonological loop I guess that this kind of conscious noticing, awareness-raising, focusing on phonological form, might aid learning. (For an interesting discussion of extensive and intensive reading see Jeremy Harmer’s recent post Does reading (and learning a new language) require two brains?)
And going back to lope and loop, it also seems to point to the importance of teaching s0und/spelling rules (the “magic” final “e”, the possible pronunciations of “oo”) at the point of need ie when the mismatch takes place, in order to help readers process similar words when they come across them. And a final note, although my son stubbornly claimed that “I’m just going to keep reading it as loop!” , I’ve noticed that lope has now entered his active vocabulary 😉