I vividly remember analog media and the switch to digital. Sometimes I’m still amazed that I can check a word’s definition by tapping on it. As a public elementary school student in the 1990s, to define an unfamiliar word, I would have needed to walk to a heavy dictionary on the other side of the room. My disability would have made this time-consuming and dangerous, if not impossible. So, instead, I relied on shortcuts that often hindered my vocabulary and reading comprehension. Note: I’m not an educator or a parent. So, this is strictly my own perspective as an adult writer remembering her childhood.
My elementary school teachers were excellent, so the few tips that didn’t work for me stick in my memory. Around 4th grade, teachers taught us to skim long paragraphs for keywords and guess unfamiliar words’ meanings from context clues. We hadn’t been reading long enough to benefit from these shortcuts. They only slowed down and confused many of us. Although it may seem automatic to many adults, isolating the main ideas was a separate skill set we hadn’t yet learned.
Teachers’ suggestions to skim long passages directly contradicted my mom’s advice. She’s a retired elementary school teacher who taught me to love reading by preschool. When I guessed or skipped words, she always said to me: “Read what’s there.” Although this advice worked for me, she knew it wouldn’t help every kid. She meant something like: reading is about discovery. Be surprised; don’t make assumptions. Today, I still think the capacity to be surprised and have my beliefs challenged is an important part of learning.
Our teachers were trying to help us, but they unintentionally taught us to make assumptions without double-checking them. As an adult, I think it’s impossible, or at least inefficient, to reverse-engineer words’ meanings from the surrounding context. I added many words to my vocabulary from reading as a child, but I’m sure I used a lot of them incorrectly.
At the time, I didn’t realize that by using words whose definitions were unclear to me, I unconsciously absorbed and repeated the biases of what I’d read. When I tried to guess what I thought a word should mean, I completely missed any biased connotations of words or the contexts in which authors and characters used them. This is especially true of old books canonized as classics.
The strategy of using context clues to guess a word’s definition always felt counterintuitive to me. On middle school vocabulary tests, we were often asked to use each word in a sentence. This is a good skill, but it doesn’t necessarily mean knowing the definition. Many words would fit coherently into a given sentence, but they’re not interchangeable. As a constant reader, I developed a sense of diction, syntax, and rhythm. The downside was that I could craft sentences that sounded good but didn’t necessarily say what I wanted to convey.
For similar reasons, I’ve never been a fan of thesauri. Finding synonyms instead of definitions feels unreliable and like working backwards to me. When I use a thesaurus, it’s always in tandem with a dictionary. If I’m unsure of a word’s definition or spelling, I use a dictionary, often via Google. However, if I find a synonym or guess a word’s meaning or spelling, I then double-check a dictionary.
Many people find thesauri useful, and their history is fascinating. Using thesauri undermined my confidence in my own ideas and vocabulary. When writers feel insecure, they sometimes try to impress their readers with the longest or most obscure words. This tendency works at cross-purposes with clear, accessible writing. In Making Shapely Fiction, a book that influenced my fiction writing in college, author Jerome Stern writes: “Your strongest, most direct language is probably already part of you. Trusting the words you know is often better than importing a vocabulary not your own.” I love that Stern encourages student writers to trust themselves, without judging them or using absolutes like “always” or “never.”
Skimming may be a more effective reading technique for college and grad students than for elementary schoolers. Even then, many disabilities develop or are diagnosed in adulthood, so students may find that these shortcuts eventually stop helping them.
As an English major in college, I read Chaucer in Middle English and a lot of Early Modern English, especially Shakespeare. I realized I’d been skimming way too much and losing reading comprehension. I practiced habits to pace myself, like writing and reading to music and imagining my own or characters’ voices reading each word.
Even now, when I try to skim, I find it counterproductive. Skimming works only when I correctly predict what will happen. If something unexpected occurs, I go back and reread anyway. I might skim a battle scene but then go back to reread if a character dies. Any seconds or minutes I may have saved by skimming are negated if I miss important plot points.
Educators still debate these techniques of teaching literacy today. The two main approaches are memorizing whole words and reading phonetically. Mikkaka Overstreet wrote on BR in 2021 that as a literacy professor, she thinks most kids need both approaches.
Over the holidays, my mom discussed trends in teaching reading with my cousin, a reading specialist. Mom always incorporated phonics into her classes, even when it wasn’t an official part of the curriculum.
My cousin recommended Sold a Story, a podcast from American Public Media about teaching reading. The first episode interviews parents raising concerns with the same strategies that frustrated me as a child, decades ago: “Look at the picture. Guess a word that makes sense. Sound it out only as a last resort.” One parent says: “They weren’t reading. They were doing what the teachers told them.” I understand why some kids find phonics confusing or dull and why other kids dislike viewing reading as guesswork even more.
Reading and writing are subjective. A one-size-fits-all approach is impossible and makes inequities for marginalized kids worse. When I’m trying to concentrate on reading, I slow down, imagine a narrative voice, and remind myself: “Read what’s there,” every word.