After studying comments on reading comprehension for the last two decades, a significant discovery in a May 1877 public meeting report explains something about reading comprehension and illiteracy in English that should be obvious — but which I have never seen in any of the articles about reading comprehension. Here is a very significant quote from that report by Sir Isaac Pitman:
“One inspector [of reading instruction in London] writes: “I seldom hear pleasing reading. In many cases the fact that the child is not thinking of what it reads, but of how the next hard word is to be pronounced, deprives the reading of all naturalness.”
The lack of naturalness perceived by the listener is a strong indication of a lack of understanding of what the reader is reading.
I have seen many statements about reading comprehension over the years. Most of the time, such comments are made by teachers intent upon defending their present method of teaching reading. Usually the statement is made by teachers using the whole word method of teaching reading to counter the claims of those who want them to introduce phonics into their teaching. Teachers claim that if they change their teaching method students will merely be “parroting the words” without comprehending what they mean.
Because of growing up believing that there is only one correct way to spell our words, it seems never to occur to teachers (or anyone else) that the illogical, inconsistent English spelling is causing the student to spend more effort in correctly pronouncing a word than in the meaning of the sentence being read. The effort required correctly to pronounce the word comes because the word gives no reliable indication of how it is to be pronounced.
Here is an indisputable statement that can be made about reading comprehension: If readers know the pronunciation of all the words in a written sentence and all of these words are in their SPEAKING vocabulary, they know the meaning of the written words. This is another way of saying, if they do not comprehend what they are reading, it is because the words are not in their reading vocabulary OR they have not understood what words the illogical, inconsistent spellings are representing.
All those individuals who have learned to read fluently and do not want to change the spelling they spent so much time and effort learning and all the teachers who do not want to have to change the way they teach reading are saying, in effect, they DO NOT CARE how much difficulty new readers have. They can feel justified in resisting change — even change for the better — because they do not realize the shocking extent of illiteracy in English or how seriously illiteracy affects the illiterates, those of us who are literate, and our nation. The following blogs have proven the extent, the seriousness, and the proven solution of illiteracy in English: Reading Education, April 9, 2013, and Widespread Illiteracy, April 16, 3013, and Illiteracy & Big Business, April 20, 2013, and America’s Dirty Little Secret, January 20, 2012, and the March 21, 2013 blog on this website. Our humanitarian project for ending illiteracy in English is introduced on our Ending Functional Illiteracy in English website, where a free copy of the award-winning book, “Let’s End Our Literacy Crisis” is available as a 265-page e-book in PDF format.