I have been reading a book by Frank Smith entitled, Reading FAQ. I am going to add it to my books list, but I thought I would give a brief excerpt here. I having been thinking about the idea that we need to totally revolutionize the way we view language acquisition. Traditionally, we have just given students lists of words for them to memorize and this needs to stop. What we need to do is to expose them to different contexts of words that they can understand and slowly they will start to grasp the meaning. They will begin to make sense of the print, which is what reading is.
On page 18, Frank Smith is discussing what happens when we read a word that we haven’t met before. He states:
By a process called “fast mapping,” children automatically attach a possible meaning to any unfamiliar word they encounter in speech or writing, and refine this possible meaning on further encounters. Six encounters is usually enough for a correct meaning the be determined. To determine the pronunciation, someone else must be heard saying the word.
Of course, none of these ways of identifying new words is possible if the words are in isolation, in lists, or any other kind of meaningless context. Expecting children to learn new words by presenting them one at a time makes reading as difficult as possible for them.
After I read this I started thinking about how often this happens in the classroom. I mean, most of a textbook is just lists of words that are not in a context. Are we really making it easy for a student to learn the language when we do this? I would say that we are not and that perhaps we need to think about language acquisition in a new way. Instead of lists we need to present words in different contexts so that the students can have the opportunity to experience words enough times to get a sense of the meaning. Meaning is not always something that can be defined, but a feeling. Most people know when to use the preterite because of a feeling, not because of the rule.
Have we totally bought into the power of reading and what it can do for language acquisition? Or are we still stuck on the idea that the students need us or a textbook full of lists to learn a language. I think that if we really gave reading a shot, we may be surprised how much language could really be acquired. I know that I am not there yet, but that is where I want to go.