So, you’re going to teach children to read…
Learning how to read is the single most important skill a child develops in primary/elementary school. Being able to teach children to read is the single most important skill a primary teacher develops in teacher training.
Here is an overview of the essential knowledge that the bulk of the research suggests you will need to know:
1.Humans’ ability to communicate orally in humans has evolved over millions of years. We seem to be pre-wired to develop speech and do so naturally and without specific instruction. We even seem to have an inherent and natural ability to add grammatical nuances to language (Chomsky, 1965). MORE HERE
2.This is not the case for written communication. Writing developed about 5000 years ago. This is not an evolutionary timeframe. We have, therefore, not evolved to read. Reading has evolved to the constraints of our brains (Dehaene, 2015). Therefore, reading MUST BE TAUGHT. It cannot happen naturally.
3.Before children are able to read, they must be aware of individual words. This sounds obvious. It is not obvious to children because when adults speak, they run words together. Children must then become aware of different sounds in words (phonological awareness) and then they must become aware of the smallest units of sounds in words – the phonemes – this is phonemical awareness and is the greatest predictor of future reading ability. Children also need to become aware of the concept that print relates to words and sounds. This is helped by adults indicating this – pointing at the words as they are read – otherwise children tend to ignore the print and look at the pictures. MORE HERE
4.Humans cannot become fluent readers by remembering words by the shape. We can remember about 3000 shapes. The average university graduate has a vocabulary of 80,000 words – do the maths. Even Chinese and Japanese languages use syllables to reduce the reliance on symbol memorisation. Both languages take a lot longer to learn to read than English.
5.Alphabetic languages utilise a very few symbols (letters) that in combination are able to encode all of the sounds of a language. By learning the sounds associated with letters and combinations of letters and then blending those sounds together, written words can be read. Rather brilliant. However, some languages have almost the same number of sounds as letters – Italian and Spanish and Finnish – so it is very easy to learn to decode words as one letter represents one sound.
6.English, however, has 45/46 sounds but only 26 letters so some letters represent more than one sound ( in go and hot) and some sounds are represented by more than one letter (the sound in may, maid, eight) resulting in nearly 200 spellings of those 45 sounds. Very complex.
7.Much of this complexity is as a result of the historical development of English (MORE HERE) with the result that in English, letters are not just representing sounds but are also indicating a word’s meaning and morphology (nature and natural) with a preference for shorter words and therefore many homophones (made and maid). This is very useful once reading has been mastered but makes initially learning all the letter and sound combinations much more demanding.
8.Nevertheless, English has been encoded using an alphabet and it is the understanding of this alphabetic principle that is the key to children learning to read (Backman, 1983).
9.When children start to become aware that writing represents words, they remember words as symbols (think Coca-Cola logo). They then become aware of letters in words and some of the sounds that the letters represent. Some children may then be able to learn all 45 sounds and the 200 spellings of the sounds by constant repetition of the words through regular presentation (think flash cards and Biff and Chip books that constantly repeat target words). Many children will not and will be reliant on reading words as symbols (lots of logos) – these children may even seem quite fluent at first but as they start to read books with fewer pictures and more words their memory threshold for symbols is reached and the only strategy for reading a new word is to guess it. That’s a really poor strategy – they can only guess words that might fit with the context of the book, might be semantically likely (it’s a verb in the past tense) or by looking at the pictures (what if there’s a picture of a horse and a house?). MORE HERE
10.The most effective way we know of teaching ALL children to read and to give them a robust strategy for reading a new word is to teach them the alphabetic code that has been used to encode English – which letters and combination of letters represent which sounds. It starts with the part of the code that is relatively simple (s-i-t, p-i-n). When the sounds are blended together the word is identified. It then moves to the more complex elements of the code where two or more letters represent a sound or where one letter represents more than one sound. If the child is then able to practice this sounding and blending (synthesising of sounds) with books that have words in that follow the elements of the code they have been taught (decodable texts) they start to read more quickly. This takes some time and can be slow and very demanding for children but with their teacher able to remind them of the code when the child gets stuck the reading rate improves. If the code is taught systematically and the synthesising of the sounds practised very regularly children then develop their code knowledge. This is Systematic Synthetic Phonics.
11.Learning to decode is hard work for children and they will be restricted in what they can read. It can often sound like hard work too – that’s normal. This is why teachers should also read children and expose them to a rich environment of literature and vocabulary. And decoding is not reading. It is the most effective way we know of ensuring that children can develop the procedural knowledge that enables them to recognise words instantly.
12.As decoding improves and becomes faster, children are able to recognise many words instantly. They are NOT reverting to seeing the word as a symbol. The ‘word superiority effect’ (Reicher, 1969) is manifesting itself. This occurs when children have developed a deep knowledge of legitimate letter patterns and the associated sounds such that they are able to read a word quicker than they can read the individual letters. It is why humans can read so quickly.
13.This automaticity (instant word recognition – MORE HERE) is developed by self-teaching. That requires lots and lots of regular reading practice. It also helps if it happens in school and is better when teachers know that it is happening and are monitoring the reading and helping children decode words they are not sure of. This is why whole-class reading is so effective (see Lemov’s Reading Reconsidered). It is also why teachers in ALL year groups need to understand the alphabetic code. If a child can’t read a word correctly and the teacher is able to refer to the code knowledge, then the child can read the word. The alternative is guessing…or the teacher reading the word…and the teacher already knows how to read – it’s the equivalent of the teacher doing the child’s painting for them.
14.Automatic word recognition is not reading fluency. Fluency requires rate, accuracy and prosody (reading with understanding, intonation and reference to punctuation and authorial voice). By the end of year 6 most children should be able to read about 150 word per minute (out loud) with 98% accuracy and adequate adherence to grammatical precepts.
15.The thinking now is that reading comprehension is not a skill that can be taught but a combination of reading fluency, vocabulary knowledge allied to global knowledge, cultural knowledge, content knowledge and subject knowledge (see here). So, a reading comprehension test is not going to tell you very much about where a child is on their journey to reading fluency; it’ll tell you more about their knowledge.
Good luck. Teaching children to read is your number one job. ALL children. We know how to do it most effectively. Don’t leave it to chance. And if you’re not taught any of this by your university…ask them why. And maybe ask for your money back.
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