The following reading error patterns have become common place in schooling today:
- ‘mad’ is misread as ‘maid’ (confusion between letter names and sounds)
- ‘big’ is misread as ‘dig’ (b/d confusion)
- ‘dam’ is misread as ‘dim’ (end letter guessing)
- ‘insist’ is misread as ‘insect’ (misguessing visually similar words)
- ‘of’ is misread as ‘for’ (poor left-to-right processing)
- The child says ‘I don’t know’ when asked to read longer words like ‘insistent’ (guessing accuracy breaking down with long words and low VAS)
- doesn’t appear to notice when a word’s spelling ‘looks wrong’ (poor proof reading, often associated with guess-dependence).
VAS Theory Explains:
- why these error patterns develop
- how to identify in advance the child at risk of developing these problems
- how to minimise the chance of these problems developing.
The VAS reading echo assessment test enables teachers and parents to measure word-guessing skills as well as phonic skills. Once the tests have been completed, a summary of the results can be produced. Anyone can administer the tests (a script is also provided) but we recommend that you read the explanatory notes prior to using each test. You will also need to register so that your test results can be kept securely for your use only.
Always establish letter sounds before letter names.
Visual Attention Span (abbreviated to VAS hereafter) measures the number of elements (letters) that a child can put into memory when guessing a word.
Take the word ‘magnet’ for example. The letters that will attract the attention of a word-guessing child are the letters adjacent to spaces.
The two end letters m____t have spaces next to them and the two letters __g__t intrude into the spaces below and above the rest of the word. There are therefore 3 letters that stand out to a word-guessing child m_g__t; these 3 letters are called the ‘high visibility letters’.
But some infants cannot hold 3 letters in memory. If they process only 1 letter they may process ‘magnet’ as m_____’ and misguess the word as ‘mother’ or ‘measles’ or any of 400 words. This child is said to have level 1 VAS; word-guessing is obviously going to be unreliable.
A child with level 2 VAS will be able to process 2 letters at a glance and, in a small word, will usually choose the two end high visibility letters m____t and therefore misguess magnet as ‘meat’ or ‘mist’. But there are still about 40 words that share that visual pattern; word guessing with level 2 VAS is therefore predictably inaccurate.
The tipping point comes at VAS level 3 because now the child can process all 3 high visibility letters m_g__t and that pattern only fits a handful of words (magnet, maggot, midget). Whole word guessing therefore becomes possible with a level 3 VAS.
There are however good reasons for minimising whole word guessing until basic phonic habits are firmly established The following table shows how guessing accuracy relates to various VAS levels in the infant grades.
The second column (headed ‘Visual Pattern’) shows the basis for their guess. The underlying principle is ‘the more information, the more accurate the guess’). The third column shows how many words could fit that pattern. Obviously if there is only one word that could fit the visual pattern, the guess should be accurate. But if there are many words that could fit the pattern, the infant’s guess is potentially inaccurate. Column 4 provides examples of one or two possible matches. Column 5 reflects the likely guessing accuracy if the child is an infant.
These observations only apply to infants since for example the infant who has level 2 VAS at age 7 should develop level 4 VAS at age 15. However, if he is taught guessing in those early infant grades, he may develop habits of inaccurate guessing that then persist right through to the age of 15.
The VAS Ceiling
We have spent more than 20 years following and measuring the reading performance of thousands of children. During that time we have observed, measured and eventually explained the different reading patterns of children with good phonic skills and those with habituated whole word guessing habits.
Among the more important findings has been the understanding of the relationship between VAS LEVELS and reading accuracy. In phonic processing there is only a loose relationship between VAS and reading ability; children with good phonic skills can become good readers and spellers almost regardless of their VAS level.
But we observed that the whole word, guess-dependent children needed a higher VAS if they were to guess words correctly…the higher the VAS the better they were at guessing. We noted that for short words the end letters and the letters with limbs were usually selected as a basis for whole word guessing but that in longer words the emphasis shifted towards the letters at the beginning of words.
We also noticed that an infant with a VAS level of 3 could usually read 3,4 or 5 letter words but that accuracy seemed to falter with anything longer. From those observations we came to understand the rule of thumb that VAS +2 was an accuracy threshold for guess-dependent infants. If we displayed longer words, misguessing increased. We therefore called this limit the VAS Ceiling; it allows teachers to predict the approximate word length that can be confidently learned.
Of course it is only an approximation because some words are distinctive and therefore easier to guess. For example an infant with a VAS of 3 may look at the word ‘Elephant’ and correctly guess the word because the child knows no other long word that will fit that pattern. But if you showed the child another 7 letter word ‘Elegant’ he is likely to misread it as ‘Elephant’ because you have overstepped his VAS Level 3 + 2 =5 letter VAS Ceiling.
This immediately raised our concerns because we already knew that VAS levels seldom exceed level 5 even in adults. If the rule-of-thumb formula (VAS + 2 = guessable word length) was correct then we predicted that guess-dependent children with a high VAS of 5 should struggle with simple 3 syllabic words because such words may have 8 or more letters and this exceeds the formula VAS(5)+2=7 letter words.We call this guessable word limit ‘The VAS Ceiling’. To a child with a VAS of 3 the VAS ceiling is met at VAS(3)+2= 5 letter words.
We also observed that once guessing habits were established they tended to persist. We therefore predicted that accuracy in reading simple 3 syllabic words should be an ongoing problem for guess-dependent children.
In order to establish the prevalence and effects of word guessing we studied 911 Failing readers and looked at their errors when reading phonetically simple, three syllabic words; words that would pose no problems to an infant with good phonic skills and found, just as we had predicted, that, after four years of schooling, 94% made repeated errors on simple 3 syllabic words; 75% of these failing readers still exhibited the same inaccuracies when entering high school.
We also found similar trends in studies of 676 Average readers and 616 Superior readers along with widespread evidence that the inaccuracies were associated with habituated word-guessing.
There is however another problem. Whole word processing involves 3 stages:
Stage 1: forming a pattern,
Stage 2: searching in memory for known words that fit that pattern,
Stage 3: using context cues if available to narrow down the final choice
If you look at stage 2: that involves matching with known words A problem therefore arises when the word is unfamiliar, the student then cannot make a match in memory because they have never seen or heard the word before (for example Aboriginal towns such as Eromanga, Kununurra).
By grade 4 the text books become less controlled for word length and there are increasing numbers of unfamiliar or visually-similar words such as insect/inspect, infest/infect.
If that were all, whole word dependency in beginner readers would create concern. However there is yet another problem…
We want our children to be able to use whole word processing for sight words but be able to use phonic skills for long words, particularly if unfamiliar. If the guess-dependent infant has a high VAS level, they will appear to be among the best readers/guessers in the early grades. By the age of ten this is beginning to cause problems because more longer and visually similar words are being introduced. The natural assumption is that we could, at this late stage, introduce phonic remediation but the ten year-old student has habituated fast (but sometimes inaccurate) whole word guessing. He is guess-dependent and will resist slowing down to apply basic phonics. We have created a permanent Phonic barrier.
What we should have done, with almost all infants regardless of VAS level, is to first establish Systematic Phonics, carefully graded, consolidated by practice at every stage, each stage building on previous phonic knowledge. Not the more random, inadequately consolidated, poorly sequenced Analytic sometimes called “Embedded” Phonics of Whole Language.
If the infant masters the phonic skills (and that included the exceptions to phonic rules) they will recognise that some words keep cropping up and the student will begin to treat those as sight words. The student therefore ends up with both sight words and automatic phonic skills and that allow the student to attack new words, regardless of length and familiarity. The bonus is that the student is also establishing a basis for spelling’s left-to-right processing and attention to mid word detail when proof reading.
- Infantile word guessing often leads to ongoing inaccuracy and
- The VAS Ceiling then creates an ongoing limit on guessable word length.
- The VAS Ceiling begins to significantly undermine reading performance about the age of 10
The child with a low VAS is particularly vulnerable to the damage that can be caused by early guess-dependence
Those infants who begin learning to read with a low VAS will probably always have a lower VAS than the general population (refer to the graph). If they have phonic skills this matters little, as they can move easily from the early blending of sounds into the blending of syllables and thus read words of any length.
Their phonic skills thus allows them to break through the VAS ceiling that would otherwise handicap their reading. Those who are deprived of early and reliable phonic skills, be they low VAS or high VAS, are denied the opportunity to break the VAS barrier.