Word Callers: A Perspective on Children who “Read” Without Comprehension

Perhaps one of the most perplexing enigmas I have encountered as a literacy teacher is the presentation of a student who can read, or decode, with amazing ease, but does not understand. Often the child has an impressive facility with the decoding process, and is proud of his skill. He has a glint in his eye, and is more than happy, most often, to show his teacher his facility with words, and reading assessments are his delight. As reading teachers, we are taught to assess comprehension frequently, and certainly as the second part of any read aloud. With children who have come to be known as “word callers,” or as famed literacy  specialist, Edward Dolch, has coined their behavior, “meaningless reading.” (1960), this is the juncture at which their smile begins to fade and the cold realization of disconnect dawns upon the teacher; this is a child who reads but understands either very little or literally none of what he reads.

Almost all of us, educators and others alike, adults, and essentially any literate person, have had the experience of “reading” a page, sometimes more, and then realizing that we have been thinking of anything but what was on the page; we have zoned out, and go back and re-read. This is not word calling. For students who read but do not understand the struggle is pervasive and continual, and the results are, in the long-term, often daunting and disastrous in terms of academic success. It is only with keen teachers, appropriate assessments, and a sharp eye on such a child, that we are able to come to the conclusion that despite the “glimmer and shine” of such a “skilled” decoder, one who has so accurately cracked the code of our language, who frequently reads with such beautiful pacing and expression, that we are able to come to the conclusion that we are faced with a child that is often lost in terms of content, and, left unchecked and non-remediated, is most likely in danger of academic failure. Frequently, word callers have poor metacognitive skills in addition to poor comprehension skills and do not even realize their lack of comprehension.

Sometimes the situation arises that the child is a precocious reader, and that with a metaphor of a night driver who overdrives his headlights, and cannot see into the darkness into which he plunges, such a student plows forward reading words, but lacks the maturity to understand the material. This is not true word-calling, as this is simply a child who needs to be directed to age/grade-appropriate text, despite his ability to decode the words before him. True word callers are those students who, generally have cracked the code of the language, but who never seem to catch up in terms of understanding at all. They are in great danger of academic failure. Sometimes –unusual but sometimes– they realize their lack of comprehension. The hope for those select learners is that they express their confusion and the fact that they are racing through text, many times at warp speed, but getting no real meaning from the task. With such metacognition and expression, such children can be attended to with comprehension work to remediate their gaps in absorbing text. But, the sad truth is that more often than not, word callers do not understand that they do not understand.

In the book aptly titled, Word Callers, published by Heinemann and written by Kelly B. Cartwright, the author, a professor of Psychology Neurocience, and Teacher Preparation at Christopher Newport University, explains a word caller’s weak metacognition as founded in five specific weaknesses: they are unable to consider multiple ideas and tend to focus strictly on letter-sound information, often to the dismissal of meaning, they frequently believe that we read in order to sound fluent, and the concept of retrieving meaning/information is glossed over if it is considered by these children at all; in addition, word callers do not merge decoding and extraction of meaning automatically, again, if at all, and their thinking is frequently less amenable to considering other people’s perspectives. Finally, in her book, Dr Cartwright indicates that research has suggested that where the focus on phonics instruction has been strong, this prior acclimation to decoding can possibly affect the mental processes to the end of diminishing the executive process that are present in excellent whole language acquisition and proficiency (Allington 1980; Chinn et al, 1993, Mertzman 2008).

So, acknowledging the existence of a group of children who read so well, but without comprehension, the question is: How can we best support such students? First, there are the classic and widely accepted areas of Reading Comprehension, which are the essential hallmarks of getting the most of the text that we read. These lessons for narrative text include previewing, activating prior knowledge about the background of the setting and topic, if possible, making connections (personal –text to text, text-to-life, text-to-self–) throughout the reading, looking for context clues for unknown vocabulary , identifying main idea, details, inferencing, and drawing conclusions. The foci also include recognition of characters, conflicts, rising action, climax in a story, resolution, or in fancier, French terms, the “denouement.” The ability to tease out these multiple elements in narrative text have long been the foci of reading , English and classroom teachers in supporting excellent comprehension.

For expository text, the elements of comprehension include previewing the selection, attending to the tiles, headings, making predictions, looking at the photos, illustrations, captions, and graphics; the elements also include activation of prior knowledge, reading the introductions and summaries, and setting a purpose to the reading. Making connection during the reading as to what the reader already knows and what he wants to learn and finally does learn, identifying the main idea and supporting details, and clarifying understanding through summarization, forming conclusions, and creating questions about the text read all help to support comprehension.

All of these comprehension techniques are standard and the hallmarks trademarks of “Best Practices for Literacy Instruction.” For those students who read fluently, but do not understand, these foci are also in order, of course, and will help to support the student. The catch, however, is that for the fluent reader, there is often an intrinsic attitude of, “I GET this… I can read so well, don’t bother me with questions!” As a literacy specialist, I have encountered this time and time again. Unlike weaker decoders, the irony is that many word callers have weak metacognition, and are often “locked into rigid thinking and task-orientation that points strictly to cracking the graphic code. It is for these special students that additional strategies are in order.

First, it is imperative to identify the excellent decoders with poor comprehension –as evidenced by their classic and unfortunate inflexible thinking. The assessment for this, as described by Dr. Cartwright is a quick assessment to determine how proficiently readers can think about two aspects of print, sound and meaning, at the same time. Word sorts are presented and the students are asked to sort them by function and by sound. Specific protocol and materials are provided in Dr. Cartwright’s book (Heinemann, 2010), and are easy and excellent diagnostic tools. The sorts are fun and the protocols are designed to positively tweak out the strong decoders with weak comprehension.

After diagnostic assessment confirms the teacher’s suspicions about the word caller, the next steps include interventions. Word and picture sorts for individual students as well as groups, flexible thinking through jokes, riddles, and wordplay activities reinforce the development of wordplay and the awareness of multiple meanings (remember –word callers have difficulty with simultaneously thinking from two or more perspectives). Using pictorial and verbal activities by constructing meaning, scaffolding imagery, and creating sentences through story maps, story boards, and paragraph restatements, deep meaning and comprehension of text can be enhanced. Finally, perhaps the most complex and sophisticated of all comprehension tasks, inferencing, can be addressed for word callers through reading activities that integrate multiple ideas while comparing fiction and non-fiction on the same topic (for example: The Three Little Bears and a non-fiction text on hibernation), looking for specific cues within stories, and using Cloze stories with fill-ins that require accurate inferencing.

The Rabbi Arthur Schneier Park East Day School is a prestigious NYC Jewish Day School in the heart of New York City.  Located in the Upper East Side, this Jewish Day School promotes academic growth through community and collaboration.