One of my colleague Richard McManus’s favorite stories about reading instruction involves a young girl who was brought to his tutoring center to prepare for a private-school admissions exam. She was clearly very bright, and when she was asked to read aloud, she did so quite fluently. Richard assumed that she’d ace the test with little trouble. When he told this to her mother, however, the woman’s response was that her daughter sounded fine but in fact understood almost nothing of what she read.

Richard was baffled. Luckily, though his friend Jean Tucker—a speech-language pathologist, reading specialist, and creator of the Spell of Language program—happened to be visiting that day and overheard the child reading. She turned to Richard and promptly announced, “That little girl can’t hear vowel sounds.”

Richard tested the girl and discovered that Jean’s diagnosis was in fact correct: the girl could not distinguish between vowel sounds. As a result, she was unable to tell many words apart and thus could not comprehend what she read. Richard put the girl on an intensive diet of vowel sounds, and sure enough, her comprehension began to improve.

I’ve heard Richard tell this story a number of times, but it was only very recently that I connected it to the so-called “word caller” phenomenon, in which children decode with apparent ease but are unable to make sense out of what they are reading.

To back up for just a second, the Simple View (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) states that Reading Ability = Decoding Ability x Aural Comprehension. This is the generally accepted model of how people are (un)able to make sense out of written texts, and when you think about it, it’s quite logical.

Essentially, a person can be able to decode a text perfectly, but if the language involves vocabulary, syntax, and background knowledge above the level of their aural comprehension, they will not be able to understand it. This corresponds to basic observable reality: most skilled adults readers could decode an advanced engineering textbook with relative ease, but few would have the vocabulary or mathematical knowledge to understand what the text actually meant. For all intents and purposes, they would simply be reciting words.

When I was tutoring, I had several students who didn’t exactly fall into the “word caller” category, but whose decoding skills significantly outstripped their general language ability. In every case of this I can recall, the student had a diagnosed learning disability and had received significant intervention on the decoding side; their comprehension difficulties resulted from the fact that they had weak vocabularies, understanding of syntax, and general knowledge. The same issues would surface if someone read them a text.

Given that experience, when I started learning about early reading instruction and discovered the pejorative “word caller” epithet, I assumed that the issue stemmed primarily from the aural comprehension/general language development piece of the reading equation. But now when I think about Richard’s story, I realize that there can also be hidden decoding issues. It seems possible that some children who appear to be reading competently—or even well—don’t actually perceive vowels correctly and, as a result, don’t realize they’re saying words they know.

I realize this might sound a little wacky, but hear me out.

In my experience, very few learners experience difficulties that are truly unique to them; if one student is missing a particular skill, chances are lots of others lack it as well. It just might be that no one has ever noticed, or even thought to check. And this is particularly true for reading.

When it comes to learning to decode phonetically, it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of being able to perceive vowel sounds accurately—and in particular vowel sounds in the middle of words. Lots and lots of words are written with the same sets of consonants; changes in meaning are conveyed through vowels. Think batbait, betbitbite, boughtbutbootbout. A person who is not aware of the differences between those vowel sounds will struggle to connect them to specific letters/combinations of letters and thus to read words containing them.

The absolutely key thing to understand here is that this is not a speech or hearing problem but rather an issue of conscious aural discrimination. It is entirely possible for someone to be able to automatically pronounce vowel sounds correctly within words, and to be able to easily distinguish between spoken words that differ by only one vowel sound; and yet on a conscious level struggle to recognize, produce, and differentiate among those same vowel sounds in isolation. 

This might seem very counterintuitive, but reality is not required to follow the rules of logic.

I confess that when Richard first showed me the Fluency Factory’s vowel chart (covering long vowels, short vowels, and diphthongs) and referred to “training” people on it, I was slightly baffled: it struck me as pretty much self-explanatory. The idea that someone could be able to say a word like book perfectly and automatically but then be unable to isolate the short “oo” vowel sound and say it on its own did not occur to me. It also did not occur to me that a person could find this exercise in any way awkward or unnatural or unpleasant. To me, sounds just were what they were, regardless of whether they happened to be part of a word or not.

When I observed Richard work with various students, however, I discovered just how much I was taking for granted. Differentiating between a short “oo” (as in booklookcook) and an “uh” sound (as in butcutluck) turns out to be extremely challenging for some individuals, both children and adults. I did ultimately get some inkling of what this is like during a debate with Richard over a particular variant of short “o”. His usage was based on a pronunciation common in New England that never made its way into my speech, despite my having grown up in Boston, and it took me months to figure out that the sound was actually the pure “ah” sound used in father or avocado.

During the first Breaking the Code workshop, I briefly worked one-on-one with a kindergarten teacher who whizzed through the vowel chart, saying each sound  flawlessly and without the slightest hesitation. When I complimented her, she shrugged and said that she was just looking at the example words on the side of the chart. For her, plucking a vowel sound from a word and saying on its own was completely effortless.

I realized then that I didn’t know how to impress upon her—or indeed anyone who can perceive and isolate vowels easily—just how difficult that skill can be, or what an utter, long-term train wreck it can cause if it isn’t developed. I tried to convey to her that some people simply cannot connect vowels in the context of words to vowels on their own, but I suspect that it’s a problem that needs to be seen in action to fully be grasped by someone to whom vowel perception comes naturally.

English has 18 vowel sounds (compared to just five in Spanish)! They comprise both pure phonemes and diphthongs and are spelled in many different ways—some very common and others less so. Keeping the spellings straight is hard enough; for someone who isn’t even sure of the sounds themselves, it’s basically impossible.

Furthermore, vowel perception in one’s native language develops naturally in a window from birth to 18 months; it can be explicitly taught after that, but if a child grows up in a non-English-speaking home, or has repeated ear infections that interfere with hearing, it becomes much harder. This is in part why ESL students struggle so much with English reading—and things only get harder if their English-resource teachers are not native speakers themselves. (In New York State at least, ESL teachers are required to have proficiency in a foreign language, which sharply limits the number of people who qualify for certification). A teacher whose own ability to perceive and demonstrate English vowel sounds is compromised simply cannot teach that skill effectively.

Again, speech and aural discrimination are two different things: it is possible for a student who is immersed in an English speaking environment at a young enough age to learn to speak without an accent, but that does not necessarily mean they will develop an awareness of the sounds they are producing and/or how they correspond to symbols written on a page. On the other hand, a student who begins learning English at an older age may retain an accent but still learn to aurally distinguish between similar English vowel sounds well enough to easily match the language they hear to written words.

But that said, I’m going to end this post with a slightly off-color anecdote recounted to me by fellow Breaking the Code member Valerie Mitchell, who teaches high-school French.

In the course of a recent texting exchange with another foreign-language teacher, a native Japanese speaker, Valerie happened to refer to a student named Inès.

The Japanese teacher wrote that she felt terribly sorry for the girl, with a name like that. Valerie was baffled. “But why?” she asked. “Inès is a lovely name.” Then it occurred to her to ask whether the sounds in the name meant something vulgar in Japanese. “No, no,” her colleague replied.

Valerie wasn’t convinced. Assuming that the woman was simply too embarrassed to say what the word meant, she gently prodded until her colleague’s reaction became clear: the Japanese teacher interpreted the letter I in the girl’s name as making an “ay” sound—something it never does—and the e as making an “uh” sound (sort of fair, since short vowels are sometimes reduce to a schwa in names).

As a result, she assumed the name was pronounced… anus.

True, she was not an ESL teacher, but she was a foreign-language teacher: someone whose job entailed paying close attention to sounds.

She still could not reliably identify match English vowels to some of their most common phonemes.

And she had been living in the United States for 20 years.

Just something to think about.