“But the privations, or rather the hardships, of Lowood lessened. Spring drew on: she was indeed already come; the frosts of winter had ceased; its snows were melted, its cutting winds ameliorated.”
(Charlotte Brontë, Jayne Eyre)
I always recall the word ameliorated as it turned up in Jane Eyre when I studied it for A level. ‘What an unusual word,’ I remember thinking at the time. Clearly it means the weather improved or changed. An unusual word and it drew attention to the pathetic fallacy in the text reflecting the shifting plot. If I was reading it out aloud I’d add a spring like tone to the sound of it to add a reading cue for the listener. This is why when we listen to good readers we understand the meaning more efficiently.
What happened there was inference. As a reader, motoring through the text at full speed you meet uncommon words. You may, as was the case with me at the time, be meeting the word for the first time. However, most times, with a combination of grammar and reading cues, you can decode enough of the meaning to continue reading without pausing to look the word up. This is a very specific reading skill which overcomes the raised extraneous and intrinsic load of meeting a new word whilst reading at pace. Decoding and inference at pace is what you need to be able to do in order to be a reader who can switch to different texts at ease – older texts, texts from other countries, texts in translation, texts with stylistic adaptations for effect and so forth.
Now I say all this because recently an interesting paper garnered attention in the English teaching community. The paper focused on what it called ‘fast reading’. It’s an unfortunate phrase that gives you the image of a teacher rattling through a text at speed. In fact, it means a teacher reading without interruption, without popcorning to other children in the class, without pausing to discuss the impending doom captured by the cleverly inserted pathetic fallacy, but instead consciously embedding tone and emphasis which provide reading cues. There is much merit in this – fast reading will help children decode and infer at speed and be able to use this ability to infer meaning when reading other new texts for themselves. You would, of course, then still be wise to explicitly teach inference at pace amongst other aspects of the teaching of inference. Teaching inference is a large part of what an English teacher does and is rooted in reading, listening and in processing the language with sophistication.
All good so far, what’s the issue? Well, one thing teachers have taken to is pre-teaching vocabulary before a chapter. This means the teacher will pre-read the chapter, identify the new words likely to trip up the readers and then pre-teach them before the reading of the text. This removes the extraneous load of meeting a new word and therefore makes the reading experience have a lower intrinsic load. You can see here the immediate issue – the pupils aren’t developing the decoding and inference skills needed to process new words at speed in fast reading. Pre-teaching vocabulary isn’t transferable to a new text. A pupil can’t pre-read a chapter, identify the new words then pre-teach themselves the words before reading the chapter again.
The answer is complicated again. There are times when a word can be solved by grammar or reading cues to a strong enough degree. The reader has to be able to decipher the words to the degree needed to function. I could read, ‘The nearest elder, a Ntask, was still several miles away…’ I can see the unusual word ‘Ntask’ is a proper noun, a name of an elder, this person might have some kind of rank, status or gender, but in terms of reading I can carry on without needing to stop and start looking this up. If, however, the sentence becomes impenetrable and my reading is wholly arrested by my inability to decode a word I might stop, lightly hold my finger on the word and my kindle would very kindly pop up a definition of the word including ‘in usage’.
Now, in an English class, the reality is I can’t simply hold my finger on the word because we have paper books and I have a whole class of pupil readers with me. So there will be times when I pre-teach vocabulary. There will be times when I do pause at a new word with the class and quickly teach the inference needed to decode the word. I have got to expose them to the raised intrinsic load which has been delivered by the raised extraneous load and then teach them how to resolve this using decoding and inference.
Inference itself goes much deeper than this light touch analysis. We are English teachers and we can pause and dwell on a passage before going ever and ever deeper into a text. But at the same time, we must be careful to not think that removing extraneous load in reading is always helpful. In some instances, it removes intrinsic load and the pupil never gets to develop the transferable knowledge and skill necessary to read at speed in such a way that it brokers them to other texts.
Our challenge, as English teachers, is not to teach them solely for the measurable now, but also for the unmeasurable future. A time when we hope our former pupils are enjoying reading a wide range of new and challenging texts for themselves as adult readers.