When Damon read, he looked at the pictures often. He said each word in one utterance. Unlike other beginning readers, Damon rarely used sound-by-sound reading methods. If the picture proved unhelpful, Damon looked at the teacher. Without realizing it, the teacher mouthed the words. Damon was able to read her lips. Damon read smoothly. No one thought Damon was a 6 year old struggling with reading.
Damon memorized books quickly. He could read an entire book series in class from memory. It appeared as if Damon was reading well. Consequently, his parents thought Damon was progressing in tandem with other students. Why didn’t anyone know Damon was struggling with reading? It turns out, identifying a 6 year old struggling with reading can prove difficult.
If a 6 year old is struggling with reading, they can use many clever strategies to fool educators and parents. Their ingenuity is common. In fact, many beginning readers of English place heavy burdens on their memory to cope with all the irregularities. Yet, the method of reading by memorizing eventually breaks down.
A 6 year old struggling with reading will eventually hit the limits of human memory.
Damon used his memory, with lip-reading and pictures to help him. With this method, he memorized lots of books. When Damon was 7, his educators were surprised to see his weaknesses surface. If a word was uncommon, he couldn’t read it. If a book varied language substantially, he failed to read almost anything. When he was given books with fewer pictures, he appeared nervous.
Linguists have studied human memory. We can only memorize 2,000 words!
Many kids are like Damon. In fact, lots of kids even begin to believe that reading is memorizing. They fail to see that written language is a code that can be broken. Since it is a code, we can read words anywhere. For example, you can read “happiness” anywhere—in a brochure, in a post, in a book…etc. We do not need to memorize “happiness” in a certain location. That’s because written language is a code that can be broken. With this code, we can read hundreds of thousands of words.
All languages are codes
All languages are codes. This applies to all languages that have existed ever. This includes languages like Chinese, Sumerian and Japanese, languages we usually think of as pictographic. However, calling ANY language pictographic is false. For example, traditional Chinese has far more regular units than “pictures.” At its core, traditional Chinese is a syllabary language, which means it too is a breakable code. This holds true for other languages that we usually imagine as made up of picture symbols.
All linguists have found the limits of human memory. It turns out, we can only memorize about 2,000 obscure symbols. Since the average person can only memorize about 2,000 words, language scholars have been forced to create codes that are breakable (McGuinness, 2004). Why is all this relevant to a 6 year old struggling with reading?
Essentially, a 6 year old struggling with reading is trying to memorize the language. He is reading like what a native-English speaker might imagine is an effective method for reading traditional Chinese. If it works for learning traditional Chinese, why won’t it work for English? Trouble is, people who study traditional Chinese don’t read through sheer memorization! They too have access to a breakable code. They exploit their syllables!
All languages have hundreds of thousands of words. The Global Language Monitor currently says there are over 1,000,000 words in English. If kids are taught to read through memorization, they can only learn 2,000 words this way—which is a tiny fraction of the language. Thus, the 6 year old struggling with reading is trying to read using a method that doesn’t work for anyone. He can be successful until about second grade. Then, his reading failure will surface like an exploding volcano. At that point, he’ll max out with an ability to read less than 1% of our vast English code.
A 6 year old struggling with reading will learn to read through memorization. But they can only succeed with this method until second grade.
A child that uses memorization to read will only reach the second grade reading level. A 6 year old struggling with reading is still able to read books that contain common words. Their faulty method hasn’t surfaced yet. They read books like, “I see a cat run down the hill,” books full of common easy-to-memorize words. As soon as the child reaches the end of first grade, they know their method is breaking down.
At the start of second grade, suddenly their reading failure is startling. How did this happen? I thought they were reading fine! Why didn’t the first grade teacher tell me? Many parents are shocked to discover that their second grader can’t read the simplest of words. By second grade, the child has reached the limits of human memory. Their memory can no longer bear more words. Therefore, they can only read common words.
If a 6 year old is struggling with reading what do you do?
First, take away all the crutches. Is the child truly decoding? Hide the pictures. Take out a brand new story no one has ever read to him. Make sure the book varies the language and doesn’t repeat the same phrase over and over. Can your student read the book? If not, look deeper.
Kids at 6 years old are not fluent readers. Sure, there’s always that one kid that’s breezing through Harry Potter. But in general, 6 year olds read slowly. As your student reads, can you hear him pronounce all the sounds? Does he say the sounds and then blend the word? He should.
If you have a 6 year old struggling with reading, check to see if they know letter sounds and short vowels. Get them reading short vowel books, then work toward consonant digraph books. Currently, Reading Elephant offers short vowel books and will soon offer consonant digraph books.
Don’t send the message that reading is about memorizing. Celebrate slow sound-by-sound reading. At 6 it’s often easy to memorize words. When your student memorizes a word, try not to praise him. Save the praise for the hard work they put into developing reading habits that will serve them well for a lifetime.