How do we teach reading?

So how do we teach kids to read?  Ideally, it goes something like this:

  1. Talk a lot with children, read to them, from the time they are babies.  Expand their world knowledge, enrich their vocabulary and sentence structures.  When children learn to read, it’s easier to make sense of things they already know something about. 
  2. Teach phonological awareness.  This is the concept that spoken language is made up of individual sounds, called phonemes.  In the early elementary years, children need to learn to blend sounds to make words, segment words into sounds, and manipulate sounds. Phonemes are building blocks of oral and written language, because they can be manipulated- we can add, delete, or change sounds to make new words.  Examples: “s + t + o + p” = “stop”; delete “f” from “farm” to get “arm.”
  3. Teach letter sounds using systematic phonics. This means introducing letters and their sounds in a set sequence, and teaching children to blend to sounds together to form words.  Word reading starts early, using only the letters/sounds that have been learned.  Example: a child who has learned a, s, t, m, p can read the words at, mat, sat, map, pat, etc.  The first books are decodable meaning that they start with short words, using sounds that have already been learned.  For example: The cat sat on a map.  Only a few whole words are taught, such as the and a.
  4. Don’t forget comprehension.  Talk about the story, ask questions to make sure the child understands what they are reading.  Do this even when children are reading very simple sentences and stories.

Are there other ways to teach kids to read?  Yes.  Another way goes something like this:

  1. Same as #1 and #4 above. Pretty much everyone agrees that good oral language skills and focus on comprehension are important.
  2. Talk about phonological awareness incidentally, for example by discussing rhyming while reading a book with rhymes, or by drawing attention to the first sound in everyone’s names, or by clapping the syllables in everyone’s favourite food.  The end goal of mastering the skills of blending, segmenting, and manipulating sounds is less defined.
  3. Teach children the letter names and sounds, but with less emphasis on blending sounds and single-word decoding.  The first books that children read require using their letter-sound knowledge AND other cues in the book, such as context and picture cues.  Many of the first books are repetitive or predictable, for example: “I see mom driving.  I see mom cooking. I see mom eating.”  Children work their way through levels of books, increasing in difficulty.  Phonics skills are reinforced incidentally, as they arise in the texts.  For example, you might be reminded that “oa” sounds like long o when you come to a book about boats.
  4. Teach many whole words, sometimes called sight words, words that are taught as whole units, without sounding them out.  These include words that are very common (go, here, it) and words that are irregularly spelled (eye, the, said). 

So, which is better?  The truth is that either one will work for some children, and that probably sums up why we can find both approaches (or a mix of the two) in classrooms.  However, the first approach has major advantages over the second. For one thing, it works much better for children with learning difficulties.  Furthermore, even for average readers, this approach has been demonstrated to be more efficient.  We have decades of research to support the use of systematic phonics and phonological awareness in the early years of literacy instruction, including the US National Reading Panel from 2000, which is nicely summarized by the wonderful site Reading Rockets, and also Ehri et al., 2001.

One of my favourite quotes about early literacy instruction from the blog of Dr. Timothy Shanahan: Phonics [systematic phonics] is essential to some, useful to most, and does no harm to anyone, and that’s why it is so valuable. YES! The focus of this blog is on language and literacy difficulties, but I hope it will be of interest to anyone interested in language and literacy development. Happy reading!

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