Thursday, January 14, 2010

That Magic Decoder Ring

How do you read? Decoding or Sight Words? And yes, this will get to a 'writing' topic, so hang in there. Please.

When I volunteer for the Adult Literacy League, training new tutors, one of the things we discuss is how people learning to read must be able to decode the markings on the page into meaningful words, sentences, and paragraphs. There are many ways we do this.

What does a reader do when confronted with a word he doesn't recognize?

We use our phonics skills, but they don't always work, since the English language is rooted in too many other languages that don't comply to those "rules." They work much of the time, however, so the ALL recommends using a phonics based approach as a basic starting point.

Another tool: In our training sessions we talk about Word Patterns, or Word Families, which might also draw on phonics skills. Can you compare the word to another that you already know? For example, if the student can't read the word "Shake", but can read "cake" and "bake", the tutor can use this as a way to help the reader recognize that "ake" makes a specific sound, and from there, can extrapolate how to form other words that end in "ake."

Of course, it won't always work. My favorite example is laughter. Change the "l" to a "d" and the words sound nothing alike. (Unless you're in my family, in which we've been know to refer to our dafters.)

Another technique: word parts, where compound words can be broken into components: watchman, watchdog, watchtower, etc. The reader might know both parts of the word, and can figure out the overall meaning that way.

We also discuss context clues, where an unknown word in a sentence can often be figured out simply because it makes good sense. Even as accomplished readers, we rely on this technique (if we don't feel like getting out the dictionary) when an author's vocabulary throws a new word at us. Which is another topic for another day, I think.

But the ultimate goal is to create a vast base of "sight words". Think about it. How many words in this passage stopped you? Probably none. You don't consciously decode them because you know them by sight.

And now (at last), to get to the point of today's post. I'm reading Rain Fall, which is set in Japan. Setting plays a big part in the book, and the richness of Eisler's prose paints a wonderful picture of the country. But there's a lot of Japanese involved. Yes, he explains vocabulary, translating and describing with finesse. But it's still going to slow the read for me because all the names of people and places aren't sight words.

(Note: this is NOT directed at Barry Eisler's books in particular, and I don't want anyone to think it means I'm not liking the book. I am. If I were reading a book set in any other country, I'd have the same reaction to the reading process.)

As authors, we're told that it's not wise to introduce too many characters right away, because readers are trying to get a mental "who's who" of the book. When I write, I strive to make sure I don't have many characters whose names start with the same letter, to make it easier for readers to remember who's who. There's the "J" character, and the "G" character. Of course, as more characters invade the page, I have to double (or triple) up. So, if they're important, I try not to use their initials for anyone else's name.

But it's not just character names. It's any word in a foreign language, or any word we don't recognize. While Eisler might have the luxury of choosing character names, if he's writing about real places in Japan, he's not going to be able to call them whatever he chooses.

On page 1, I met up with the following unfamiliar words: Dogenzaka, Shibuya, Yashuhiro, Kawamura, and Kokudokotsusho (and I hope I copied them correctly, because I have no language base to draw upon).

In context, I knew which were people, which were places. I knew what they meant, thanks to Eisler's writing. But they're still unfamiliar words. And I still slow down whenever I come to one.

What do you do when we're hit with names or places that aren't familiar? Do we stop and sound them out? Try to form a mental "picture" so we hope we'll recognize them when they show up again? Skim over them hoping that if they're important, they'll show up often enough to become ingrained in our memory…sight words? Move on to another "easier" book? As a reader, does it bother you? As a writer, how do you deal with incorporating foreign words into your writing?

Come back tomorrow. There will be a contest winner thanks to the generosity of Tuesday's guest, Marie Nicole Ryan, and I'll have the second Friday Field Trip. Not telling where we're going yet. It'll be a surprise (to me, too, because I haven't decided! Maybe somewhere warm.)


Carol Kilgore said...

Foreign words don't much bother me in reading as long as the author explains them or I can figure them out in context as a name something similar.

In writing, about the only foreign words I use are simple Spanish words that most people know - gracias, adios, things like that. If I think there's any doubt, I work in an explanation. I use these because most of my work is set in South Texas.

Margot Kinberg said...

Interesting topic, Terry! As a linguist, I find words from other languages fascinating and, as Carol says, as long as they don't take away from my understanding of a story, I don't mind them. When I write, I don't use too many non-English words, mostly because my characters don't. I like my writing to reflect my characters.

Elena said...

What a timely post. Just yesterday I overheard a group of women having coffee wanting to know about a book one had just read. Only she didn't. She gave it up in the first chapter - all the men had what she called one of those one syllable guy names. And three of the female characters had names that were variations on Jennifer.

There were five sales lost - she returned her copy.

I suspect, like me, that she is a sight reader. I learned to read several years before ever encountering phonics.

Terry Odell said...

Carol, Margot - it's not foreign words. I don't mind them as long as they're handled well, and in this case, Eisler certainly does. I was referring more to the "proper noun" sorts of words, especially character names, and the geographical references.

Terry Odell said...

Elena - naming characters is definitely a serious consideration for the author. Not only making sure it fits the character, but as you mentioned, they need to sound and read differently, which helps reader glom on to who's who early on.

My younger brother was caught in the "see-say" method of teaching reading, and I think it not only slowed him down in learning, but also kept him from reading for pleasure until he was much older.

Jess said...

This was a topic in my Educational Psychology course, I think. There was supposed to be a stage at which we no longer needed to "sound out" new words, and the prof seemed rather floored that most of us still used that process when encountering new words.

But when reading for pleasure, I'll often just give up on trying to pronounce words in my head if they're too complicated and fall back on simple visual recognition. But it sure does break up the narrative of the voices in my head.

-your dafter

Terry Odell said...

Jess - I can't imagine not using phonics when you come across a word like Kokudokotsusho unless you speak Japanese. We had the same trouble in Hawaii -- all those multi-syllabic street names, and no time to decode them at 40 miles an hour!

Sam said...

I remember reading an early Peanuts strip in which Linus says that when he encounters words he doesn't know, "I just bleep right over them." It's not a method I recommend, but I know people who do it.

When I hit an unfamiliar word, I can usually figure it out from context. Even if I can, though, I write it down in my notebook so that later I can look it up, copy the definition, and use it in a sentence or two so I don't lose it. Place names and unusual personal names are another matter. I don't usually have a problem with the names of people unless they have half a dozen syllables or are composed mostly of consonants. In those cases, I have to spend a little extra time looking at them on the first few encounters so that I learn to recognize them.

Terry Odell said...

Sam, I admire that you take the time to jot down new words. I keep thinking I should, but usually I just want to continue the read. I know, a paper and pen nearby would help!

It's the name thing that slows me. And all I can do is hope the author keeps them different enough so I can turn them into quick sight words.

Galen Kindley--Author said...

Gosh, this was a fascinating post, Terry. A couple of thoughts occurred as I read it.

My first book is set in Korea, and I immediately tried to determine if there were distracting words scattered about. I don't think so. Usually, they're obvious by context, or the characters explain them pretty quickly. They are, I think, essential however to help the reader get the feel of Asia, to be transported to Asia, and not...Des Moines, Iowa.

But odd words do distract me. It's one of the reason I'm not much of a SciFi fan...lots and lots of odd words to parse. Call me lazy, I guess.

Best Wishes Galen.
Imagineering Fiction Blog

Terry Odell said...

Galen - thanks for your praise. As I mentioned, most of my hiccups come from the "strange" names. In Rain Fall, Eisler translates any Japanese dialogue, so that's not a problem. (To be fair, it takes me a while to get the characters straight even when they have American names.) I'm over halfway through the book now, and the major players are easy to remember (although don't ask me to spell them), but I'm not retaining many of the long proper nouns like Kokudokotsusho. But as long as there aren't many words starting with "Koku" I'm OK. And, once you get into the book, there don't seem to be as many. It's at the beginning when everyone's a stranger that they stand out.

Ray said...

The only English language book that ever gave me trouble was War and Peace. I took me three weeks. I had a hard time deciding if a new name was a new person or a new name for the same person. I read a book five hundred pages longer than War and Peace in three days, no Russian words.


Terry Odell said...

Ray, we read War and Peace in high school, and had a full day's lecture on how the Russian naming system worked, plus a 'cast of characters' cheat sheet.

Jemi Fraser said...

How I treat unfamiliar words depends on my reason for reading. If it's for entertainment/enjoyment, I tend to skip them for the most part. That place that starts with E, the lady T with the blonde hair...

If I need to know the info, I come to a complete stop and say the word out loud over and over and over until I get it the way I think it should be. This probably has no correlation whatsoever to the way is really is, but at least I'm happy. I usually do this the first few times I encounter the word until I can finally read it. :)

Terry Odell said...

Jemi - the first part is more like what I do -- I've been known to stop and try to sound out a word. But either way, it does slow the read a bit until you get used to it.