Early Reading

How do I Teach my Child to Read with Phonics?

There are the seven key principles of effective reading instruction identified in the research along with concrete examples of what these principles mean.
The examples are taken directly from the research studies. The research findings indicate that to prevent reading problems classroom teachers should do the following:
1. Begin teaching phonemic awareness directly at an early age (kindergarten).
  • Children who are able to recognise individual sounds in words are said to be "phonemically aware".
  • Phonemic awareness can be taught with listening and oral reproduction tasks similar to those listed below.
  • When concurrent instruction in sound-spelling relationships occurs, growth in the development of phonemic awareness seems to accelerate.
  • Teachers should initiate instruction in phonemic awareness before beginning instruction in sound-spelling relationships and continue phonemic awareness activities while teaching the sound-spelling relationships.

There is little correlation between developmental stages and phonemic awareness.

  • Every school child is ready for some instruction in phonemic awareness. In fact, if the children who fall behind do not begin receiving explicit teacher-initiated instruction, they are very likely to continue falling further and further behind.
  • Phonemic awareness and other important reading skills are learned and do not develop naturally.
  • The earliest direct interventions have been initiated in kindergarten with very positive results.

Reading is not developmental in nature. A child who has difficulties in 1st grade will continue to experience those problems throughout.

The remedy is early intervention with an explicit and systematic approach to develop "phonemic awareness".

2. Teach each sound-spelling correspondence explicitly.

Not all phonic instructional methods are equally effective.

  • Telling the children explicitly what single sound a given letter or letter combination makes is more effective in preventing reading problems than encouraging the child to figure out the sounds for the letters by giving clues.
  • Many children have difficulty figuring out the individual sound-spelling correspondences if they hear them only in the context of words and word parts.
  • Phonemes must be separated from words for instruction.

Explicit instruction means that a phoneme is isolated for the children.

  • For example, the teacher shows the children the letter 'm' and says, "This letter says /mmm/." In this way a new phoneme is introduced.
  • A new phoneme and other phonemes the children have learned should be briefly practiced each day, not in the context of words, but in isolation. These practice sessions need only be about 5 minutes long.
  • The rest of the lesson involves using these same phonemes in the context of words and stories that are composed of only the letter-phoneme relationships the children know at that point.

3. Teach frequent, highly regular sound-spelling relationships systematically.

Only a few sound-spelling relationships are necessary to read. The most effective instructional programs teach children to read successfully with only 40 to 50 sound-spelling relationships. (Writing can require a few more, about 70 sound-spelling relationships.) The chart below represents the 48 most regular letter-phoneme relationships. (The given sounds for each of the letters and letter groups are either the most frequent sound or occur at least 75% of the time.)

The 48 most regular sound-letter relationships

To "teach systematically" means to coordinate the introduction of the sound-spellings with the material the children are asked to read.

  • The words and stories the children read are composed of only the sound-spelling relationships the children have learned, so all the children must be taught using the same sequence.
  • The order of the introduction of sound-spelling relationships should be planned to allow reading material composed of meaningful words and stories as soon as possible. For example, if the first three sound-spelling relationships the children learn are a, b, c, the only real word the children could read would be cab. However, if the first three sound-spelling relationships were m, a , s, the children could read am, Sam, mass, ma'am.

4. Show children exactly how to sound out words.

After children have learned two or three sound-spelling correspondences, begin teaching them how to blend the sounds into words.

  • Show them how to move sequentially from left to right through spellings as they "sound out," or say the sound for each spelling.
  • Practice blending words composed of only the sound-spelling relationships the children have learned every day.

5. Use connected, decodable text for children to practice the sound-spelling relationships they learn.

The findings of the NICHD research emphasise that children need extensive practice applying their knowledge of sound-spelling relationships to the task of reading as they are learning them.

  • This integration of phonics and reading can only occur with the use of decodable text.
  • Decodable text is composed of words that use the sound-spelling correspondences that children have learned to that point and a limited number of sight words that have been systematically taught.
  • As the children learn more sound-spelling correspondences, the texts become more sophisticated in meaning, but initially they are very limited.
  • Only decodable text provides children the opportunity to practice their new knowledge of sound-letter relationships in the context of connected reading.

Texts that are less decodable do not allow the integration of the phonological knowledge the children gain with actual reading. Only decodable text provides children a context for using their new knowledge of sound-spelling relationships in the context of real reading.

The Problem with Guessing
Text that is less decodable requires the children to use prediction or context to figure out words. Much research has evaluated the effectiveness of prediction as a strategy for word recognition. Though prediction is valuable in comprehension for predicting the next event or predicting an outcome, the research indicates that it is not useful in word recognition. The following passage is a sample of authentic text (from Jack London). The parts of the text that are omitted are the part that a child was unable to decode accurately. The child was able to decode approximately 80% of the text. If prediction is a useful strategy, a good reader should be able to read this easily with understanding:

He had never seen dogs fight as these w__ish c__ f__t, and his first ex____ t____t him an unf______able l_____n. It is true, it was a vi___ ex______, else he would not have lived to pr__it by it. Curly was the v____. They were camped near the log store, where she, in her friend_ way, made ad_____ to a husky dog the size of a full-____ wolf, th____ not half so large as _he. __ere was no w__ing, only a leap in like a flash, a met__ clip of teeth, a leap out equal_ swift, and Curly's face was ripped open from eye to jaw.

It was the wolf manner of fight__, to st___ and leap away; but here was more to it than this. Th____ or forty huskies ran -o the spot and not com___d that s____t circle. But did not com____d that s____t in_____, not the e___ way with which they were licking their chops. Curly rushed her ant_____,who struck again and leaped aside. He met her next rush with his chest, in a p_____ fash___ that tum___ed her off her feet. She never re____ed them. This was __at the on____ing huskies had w_____ for.

The use of predictable text, rather than this authentic text, might allow children to use prediction to figure out a passage. However, this strategy would not transfer to real reading, as the above passage demonstrates. Predictable text gives children false success. While this false success may be motivating for many children, ultimately they will not be successful readers if they rely on text predictability to read.

6. Use interesting stories to develop language comprehension.

The use of interesting authentic stories to develop language comprehension is not ruled out by this research.

  • However the use of these stories as reading material for nonreaders is ruled out.
  • Any controlled connected text, whether it is controlled for decodability or for vocabulary, will not be able to provide entire coherent stories in the early stages of reading acquisition.
  • During this early stage of reading acquisition, the children can still benefit from stories that the teacher reads to them. These teacher-read stories can play an important role in building the children's oral language comprehension, which ultimately affects their reading comprehension. These story-based activities should be structured to build comprehension skills, not decoding skills.

7. Balance, but don't mix.

The sixth feature above (using interesting stories to develop comprehension), should be balanced with the decoding instruction described in the first five features.

  • The comprehension instruction and the decoding instruction should be separate from each other while children are learning to decode,
  • but both types of instructional activities should occur.
  • In other words, comprehension and decoding instruction should be balanced.

A common misconception regarding the balance that is called for by the research is that the teacher should teach sound-spelling relationships in the context of real stories.

  • This mixture of decoding and comprehension instruction in the same instructional activity is clearly less effective, even when the decoding instruction is fairly structured. The inferiority of instructional activities with mixed goals (embedded phonics) has been demonstrated in several studies.

During the early stages of reading acquisition, children's oral language comprehension level is much higher than their reading comprehension level. The text material used to build children's comprehension should be geared to raise their oral language comprehension level. The material used to build their decoding should be geared to their decoding skills, with attention to meaning.

  • While decodable text can be meaningful and engaging, it will not build children's comprehension skills nor teach them new vocabulary to the extent that might be needed. Comprehension strategies and new vocabulary should be taught using stories more sophisticated than the early decodable text. The teacher should read this text to the children and discuss the meaning with them. After the children become fluent decoders, the children can apply these comprehension strategies to their own reading.


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