Reading as Comprehension and Engagement: On the Limitations of Decoding

About a year ago, a friend and I introduced my grandchildren to gaming; soon after I bought them a Nintendo Switch.

My granddaughter, Skylar, was immediately drawn to Animal Crossing because she loved that the game allows players to visit each other’s world. But the game also requires a great deal of reading so her initial experiences meant she had to play with someone who could read with comprehension to help and guide her.

Today, Skylar is starting second grade.

Happy for day 1 of grade 2.

Recently, when Skylar was visiting, she immediately wanted to play Animal Crossing with my friend. As they played, Skylar was reading aloud incredibly well, only occasionally stumbling over words that would typically be classified as “above her grade level” (a concept I reject).

Despite Skylar’s ability to decode with speed and accuracy, we noticed something really important.

After reading through the text, Skylar would pause and ask my friend what she was supposed to do. Of course, the text in the game is designed to guide what the player does so my friend patiently explained that Skylar needed to re-read but pay attention to meaning (comprehension).

With that guidance and attention to the need to decode with comprehension and purpose, Skylar began to play the game with more agency (a few days later, she Facetimed my friend to continue having someone to mentor and guide her; in other words, she didn’t magically become an independent reader).

Skylar is 7 years old, my grandson, Brees, is 4 (about to turn 5 in a few weeks).

Watching them navigate gaming as well as learning to read is fascinating for several reasons.

First, Skylar clearly prefers communal gaming. Even as she is developing the ability to read with comprehension and engagement independently, she desperately wants to play the game with someone else.

Brees, who has chosen Minecraft [1] as his go-to gaming, is a solitary gamer. While they were over for a pool day, Brees took a break and happily lay on a lounge chair playing Minecraft on his iPad.

Minecraft mania extends to Lego as well.

Second, Skylar’s gaming and reading journey dramatically reveals the limitations of decoding—notably the danger of assuming that proficiency at reading aloud (words pronounced quickly and clearly) results in comprehension and engagement.

Here I want to stress that without Animal Crossing and an expert mentor (both at the game and reading), Skylar could well have remained at the level of “going through the motions” of reading aloud.

She didn’t hesitate to re-read and work toward comprehension so that she could fully engage in the game.

In other words, literacy is ultimately about autonomy, but it is also a profoundly important aspect of community.

During the Facetime session, Skylar was seeking a mentor to confirm the decisions she was making. Even though she was decoding with comprehension, she kept asking for confirmation that she was navigating the game the right way (or more accurately, a right way).

Before I go further, I want to stress that Skylar clearly has acquired some very powerful decoding strategies based in what most people call “phonics,” but when she is in the real world of gaming, she often comes to situations when those blunt decoding skills are not only inadequate but distracting from the flow of the complicated act of reading and acting on the comprehension.

I also want to stress that watching a 7-year-old play a reading-intensive video game complicates the simplistic and misleading faith placed in “grade level” texts. Like almost all real-world texts, Animal Crossing simply uses words (no concern for “grade level” and no “context clues”), often very common words mixed in with exact vocabulary that is uncommon.

Overly simplistic views of reading and vocabulary tend to conflate the “easy/hard” binary for vocabulary with “common/uncommon.”

Uncommon words that Skylar could not decode, and often has never encountered before, were not “hard” since with a mentor to pronounce and explain the word, Skylar very quickly adapted and with repetition in the game, those words became common to her (and thus, “easy”).

Finally, this experience with my grandchildren, at different stages of development and reading, helps personify some of the significant problems with the “science of reading” (SoR) movement that advocates for the “simple view” of reading and for systematic intensive phonics for all students.

Decoding is a necessary but small aspect of the reading, which ultimately must be an act of comprehension with engagement.

But the SoR movement also will fail our students because it centers systematic programs, silver-bullet thinking, and a misguided emphasis on decoding (and blunt decoding strategies).

However, what all students need and deserve are real-world experiences with and reasons to read.

Those experiences include activities too many people still stigmatize as “bad” for children—comic books, gaming, and even Lego.

Skylar as an emerging independent reader has had some wonderful traditional school experiences, and loving teachers. But her journey to reading is much larger than that, including her current fascination with Animal Crossing.

My beautiful and eager grandchildren are powerful examples that when it comes to teaching reading, nothing is settled and nothing is simple.

Reading is comprehensions and engagement, and as Skylar demonstrates, reading is about community, a shared purpose that is filled with pleasure and the joy of creating without a finish line.

[1] Writing as a Minecrafter: Exploring How Children Blur Worlds of Play in the Elementary English Language Arts Classroom

by Cassie J. Brownell – 2021

Background/Context: Educators have considered how Minecraft supports language and literacy practices in the game and in the spaces and circumstances immediately surrounding gameplay. However, it is still necessary to develop additional conceptualizations of how children and youth’s online and offline worlds and experiences are blurred by and through the games. In this study, I take up this call and examine how the boundaries of the digital were blurred by one child as he wrote in response to a standardized writing prompt within his urban fourth-grade classroom.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Through snapshots of Jairo’s writing, I illuminate how he muddled the lines between his physical play experiences and those he had in the virtual world of Minecraft. In doing so, I argue that he carried over his personal interest as a fan of Minecraft into the writing curriculum through creative language play. As Jairo “borrowed” his physical play experiences in the virtual world of Minecraft to complete an assigned writing task, he exemplified how children blur playworlds of physical and digital play in the elementary ELA classroom.

Research Design: Drawing on data generated in an 18-week case study, I examine how one child, Jairo, playfully incorporated his lived experiences in the virtual world of Minecraft into mandated writing tasks.

Conclusions/Recommendations: My examination of his writing is meant to challenge writing scholars, scholars of play, and those engaged in rethinking media’s relation to literacy. I encourage a rethinking of what it means for adults to maintain clear lines of what is digital play and what is not. I suggest adults might have too heavy a hand in bringing play into classrooms. Children already have experiences with play—both physical and digital. We must cultivate a space for children to build on what was previously familiar to them by offering scaffolds to bridge these experiences between what we, as adults, understand as binaries. Children do not necessarily see distinctions between “reality” and play worlds, or between digital and physical play. For children, play worlds and digital worlds are perhaps simply worlds; it is we as adults who harbor a desire for clear boundaries.

Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 3, 2021, p. – ID Number: 23622, Date Accessed: 9/18/2021 7:46:35 AM

See Also

Misreading the Main Idea about Reading