How does self-teaching through reading benefit students?
The easiest aspect of self-teaching to understand is the development of orthographic representations, meaning the ability to recognize a known word in print almost immediately. When readers have strong orthographic representations around words, they recognize them in 0.05 seconds, which is far faster than the multiple seconds it might take them to sound out an unknown word.
Share (1995) advises that “the self-teaching hypothesis argues that the process of word recognition will depend primarily on the frequency to which a [reader] has been exposed to a particular word.” To put this another way: Have you seen the word enough times that you have developed the ability to recognize it in just a fraction of a second? Castles et al. (2018) state, regarding “fluent word-recognition skills…our message is that experience matters.” There is no magical or mysterious aspect to acquiring orthographic representations. It is about extensive reading—engaging with text, lots of text.
When we already know a word from having heard and, perhaps, even spoken it, self-teaching is very straightforward. We sound out a word in print that we initially perceive as “unknown,” only to find that it was already known to us in terms of its sound and meaning. We just did not have a sufficient orthographic representation.
For example, a student might have heard the word “façade” but expected it to begin with “ph-.” When f-a-ç-a-d-e is first encountered in print, it is not immediately recognized. Upon sounding out the word, however, the previously known meaning and pronunciation become associated with its written form for the first time, and the process of building an orthographic representation for the word begins. After several more exposures to the word, it will become one that is nearly instantaneously recognized.
The impact of orthographic representations on reading comprehension is significant, because “adding orthographic representations results in a smaller attention demand for decoding, leaving more attention available for comprehending what you’re reading” (Willingham, 2017). This, in turn, facilitates students’ reading development: “Children make the transition from being ‘novices,’ reading words primarily via alphabetic decoding, to ‘experts,’ recognizing familiar written words rapidly and automatically, mapping their spellings directly to their meanings without recourse to decoding” (Castles et al., 2018).
Does self-teaching come to an end?
No. Share (1999) notes that self-teaching occurs “not merely for the beginner, but throughout the entire ability range.” We are constantly taking in new words through repeated exposure. Additionally, it turns out that it is possible for us to teach ourselves unknown words, or at least figure out a good portion of their meanings in many cases.
To understand how this type of self-teaching is possible, the concept of morphemes—the smallest units of words that carry some meaning—is relevant (Dehaene, 2009). For example, we know that words ending with “-ed” are generally in the past tense. A word that begins with “pre-” implies something that happens before or is a condition. After appropriate phonetic instruction and practice with written language, we become capable of reading, not through memorizing whole words, but primarily by breaking words down into their corresponding morphemes and/or letter blends. This is when our self-teaching goes to a much higher level, because “breaking down a word into its morphemes [can often allow] us to understand words we have never seen before” (Dehaene, 2009).
Consider nonexistent words such as “reunbutton” or “deglochization.” The first we understand fully, and the second “we understand…is the undoing of the action of ‘gloching,’ whatever that may be” (Dehaene, 2009). To put this another way, we recognize the morphemes “re-” and “de-,” and through the process of phonological recoding, we are able to use this knowledge to make sense of the words. No additional explanation was required.
The potential to self-teach, particularly when encountering unknown words, is a major consideration within literacy acquisition. In fact, Share (1999) remarks that “because so many words occur so rarely in print, the self-teaching opportunities afforded by phonological recoding may well represent the ‘cutting edge’ of reading development.”
Are there benefits beyond word recognition?
Yes. While Share’s area of focus was primarily on word recognition and phonological recoding, multiple authors assert that the most viable way to build vocabulary is through wide reading (Castles et al., 2018; Willingham, 2017). So, in this sense, students who read widely and regularly are able to acquire vocabulary through self-teaching at a rate that far exceeds direct vocabulary instruction.
What are the implications of the self-teaching hypothesis on instruction?
When the capacity of self-teaching is fully understood, the implications are clear. “Once students can effectively decode, we must organize time in language arts to ensure that students spend large amounts of time reading, both purposefully and for pleasure” (Schmoker, 2018). As Stanovich and West (1989) state, “The single most effective pathway to fluent word reading is print experience: Children need to see as many words as possible, as frequently as possible” (cited in Castles et al, 2018).
Castles A. , Rastle K. , & Nation K. (2018). Ending the reading wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19(1) , 5-51.
Dehaene S. (2009). Reading in the brain: The new science of how we read. New York: Penguin.
Share D. (1995). Phonological recoding and self-teaching: Sine qua non of reading acquisition. Cognition, 55(2) , 151-218.
Share D. (1999). Phonological recoding and orthographic learning: A direct test of the self- teaching hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 72(2) , 95-129.
Willingham D. (2017). The reading mind: A cognitive approach to understanding how the mind reads. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.