The Hidden Heffalump Trap of Reading

by David Morgan

One of the most common ways that we see children struggle with their reading is based on one of their cognitive strengths, not any weakness.

It is also a problem that is often completely hidden through the early days of reading. So all can seem well until suddenly it clearly isn’t.

And once in the trap, it is hard for a child to get out again. Meanwhile, their peers will be progressing ahead of them and nobody will be quite sure what went wrong.

The trap is memorisation of words. You are teaching the children phonics each day, but some of them have a great memory and can recall the shapes of a lot of words, especially when they are repeated in regular patterns through a book. They will use any picture for clues as well.

How the Trap Develops

When you watch this, it can seem like amazing reading in the early weeks and months of learning to read. Many of these children will have a very good auditory memory too. So if you repeat a book with them, they will be partly reciting it to you.

Back in the 1990’s I was volunteering to help in my son’s school and a child was passed to me for extra reading practice, because he was struggling to read. The child was the son of a visiting professor at Oxford University and clearly very bright himself.

I was baffled because we started reading and he was doing very well in the first two pages. It was not a simple book and he was reading it fluently. But on the third page, it was like he was reading from a different page. And yes, he was! He was reciting the fourth page of the book, because he had skipped the third page by mistake. He was reciting the book word for word.

That is an extreme example, of course. He is probably a Shakespearian actor now, but many children will be able to do a lot of memory recall when reading a familiar book. If they are doing that, they are not training their brain to do the grapheme to phoneme translation that is at the heart of good reading practice.

Learning to read well is much like learning a sport. You need to be coached on good technique and then you need to get good practice. You are doing the technique coaching in the classroom, but each child then needs to get the practice they need for mastery.

If a student is using an alternative method like memory recall, they are not getting the practice that they need.

Key Lessons for Classroom Technique

Our focus is on helping every child to reach accurate, fluent reading, right on track with the curriculum. So this might only be an issue for a minority of the children in a class, but for those individual children it presents a huge risk of failure.

Therefore, our recommendations are as follows:

  1. Do not keep repeating a text for a child, so that “they build confidence”. They need to be reading unfamiliar text in their daily reading practice.
  2. Use trainertext to help them work out the unfamiliar words.
  3. Have them do an instant reread of each phrase of 3-5 words, once they have decoded the words in it. They should reread the phrase 2-3 times until it is fluent for them, before progressing to the next phrase.

The phrase reread that we are recommending might seem to conflict with our advice not to repeat books multiple times! But the key thing in point three is that the children have just decoded the words, so they are getting the decoding practice they need. The reread then helps to build their subconscious decoding routines (automaticity) and that leads to more fluency in their reading. 

The thing we are advising against in point one is reading the same book every day for a week, for example, because the learner might be just recalling the words from memory and not getting the decoding practice needed.