I’ve recently discovered Instapaper, an app which collates reading material – newspaper articles and webpages, say – and converts them into audio so that I can listen to them on my daily dog walks.
There’s never enough time in the day. My backlog of reading material just gets longer and longer, and my sense of guilt bigger and bigger.
Text-to-speech technology allows me to ‘read’ articles, research papers and blogs whilst on the move, thus helping me to catch up on the backlog and ease my guilt somewhat.
But there’s a problem.
Like all text-to-speech programmes, the speaking voice in Instapaper is somewhat stilted and robotic (think Stephen Hawking), and is unable to detect nuance. Of course, it might be argued that most written texts lack nuance because it’s difficult to discern – accurately and with any surety – the writer’s mood and intended tone of voice.
Short-form texts, and transactional texts which are ephemeral, contemporaneous and written hastily – such as SMS messages, tweets and emails – are particularly difficult to ‘read’ for ‘voice’. It’s difficult to identify sarcasm, for example; and often a tongue-in-cheek ‘joke’ is interpreted as rude or offensive.
Try saying ‘ Shut up’ in as many tones of voice as possible. Say it as if you’re really angry. Now as if you’re embarrassed. And scared. And irritated. Bored, even. Tired. And so on. Tone matters.
But with text-to-speech, this difficulty to discern tone is writ particularly large.
What is lacking from Instapaper’s robotic voice is comprehension or, more accurately, fluency. The automated voice merely sounds out letters and letter combinations without any sense of meaning. The robot doesn’t know, for example, whether the word ‘read’ should be pronounced as ‘red’ or ‘reed’. And it certainly doesn’t know if words should be read in a happy or sad tone.
So what is fluency and why is it important?
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Fluency is the ability to read text quickly and accurately, adopting the appropriate intonation. Fluency requires some background knowledge about the text, as well as an ability to rapidly retrieve the requisite vocabulary.
Fluency also requires a knowledge of syntax and grammar in order to predict the words that are likely to appear next. Let me illustrate…
Read the following sentence quickly, instinctively (i.e. without looking ahead):
He could lead if he would get the lead out.
How about this one:
The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
The bandage was wound around the wound.
The ability to adapt one’s vocabulary and intonation according to a text’s syntax and grammar, and the ability to read ahead, helps with both speed and accuracy.
English is not easy, of course. Just think of the number of ways in which -ough can be pronounced:
A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed.
Experienced readers integrate these processes so that reading becomes automatic which allows their cognitive energy to be focused on the task of discerning meaning.
A useful analogy would be learning to tie your shoe-laces. When you first learn to tie your laces, because it is an unfamiliar task, you have to dedicate all your attention to it, utilising your working memory. You have to really think about how to tie your laces, what goes where and in what order, and so cannot concentrate on anything else at the same time. To do so would be to reach cognitive overload whereby thinking and doing fails. When you are first learning to tie your shoe-laces, it is difficult – if not impossible – to do so whilst engaging in a conversation, for example.
However, once you’ve mastered the art of lace-tying – through repeated exposure to the task – you reach the point of automaticity, thus you can do it through habit without having to think about it. This frees up valuable space in your working memory to dedicate to other tasks, such as holding a conversation.
Unconvinced? Think about the first time you tried to drive a car. It felt difficult, didn’t it? You had so much to remember and do. Controlling the pedals, the steering wheel, the indicator stalks whilst keeping a constant watch on the windscreen, rear-view mirror and wing-mirrors was so difficult that it took all your working memory capacity and you couldn’t possibly do anything else at the same time. Now, however, you can drive and talk fluently to your passenger. In fact, and I’m not suggesting this is a good thing, you can drive so easily and habitually that I bet you sometimes arrive home and can’t remember a single thing about the journey, you didn’t think about it at all! Now that’s automaticity!
And reading is just the same. Through repeated exposure to reading, to decoding words and their meanings, you come to do it automatically which frees up cognitive capacity for you to read ahead, to think about syntax and grammar, and to discern meaning and tone, context and connotation, bias and allusion. All of this enables you to truly understand a text.
In other words, there is a strong correlation between fluency and reading comprehension; indeed, it is such a strong link that fluency and comprehension can be regarded as interdependent. After all, fluency only occurs when a reader understands the text; if reading is hesitant and disjointed, all sense of meaning is lost.
It is impossible to be a fluent reader if you have to keep stopping to work out what a word is. To be fluent you have to move beyond the decoding stage to accurately read whole words.
A fluent reader has ready access to a vast bank of words which can be used in different contexts.
The words to which a reader has immediate access are called their ‘sight vocabulary’. Even complex words that originally had to be decoded – like ‘originally’ and ‘decoded’ rather than monosyllabic functional words like ‘that’ and ‘had’ – but which can now be recognised on sight, become a part of the fluent reader’s lexicon.
But recognition is not enough to achieve fluency. As well as being in the reader’s sight vocabulary, words must also be stored in their ‘receptive vocabulary’ – that is to say, words which the reader knows the meaning of.
The larger the bank of words that are both recognised and understood on sight, then the broader the range of texts which are accessible. For this reason, developing sight vocabularies and receptive vocabularies are the most effective ways of developing both fluency and reading comprehension.
In Part 2 of this article, I will explore how to develop our students’ sight and receptive vocabularies, and how to develop their reading speed and prosody.
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