How do we learn to read?
Article first appeared in the Portugal Resident.
As the head of an international school who has the opportunity to meet many parents of pre-school children on a regular basis, one of the most frequent questions that I am asked is, “how will my child learn to read?”
No one remembers how they learnt to read. It is a topic of ongoing debate amongst both researchers and educators about how best to teach children to read.
Research on the science of learning to read clearly shows that young children learn to read when they are able to identify individual letters and combinations of letters, and are able to connect those letters to sounds. This is known as phonemic awareness – the understanding of sounds in spoken words, a comprehension of phonics and knowing that letters correspond to sounds are the emergent steps to becoming a reader.
A balanced approach to learning to read is considered the best way of ensuring a lifelong love of reading. Outstanding schools teach learning to read through a multi-faceted approach.
Children learn through the teaching of synthetic phonics. This allows children to learn the relationship between the sounds, which we refer to as phonemes, and the letter symbols which are called the graphemes.
When learning English, there are 44 speech sounds that can be combined to form words. As there are only 26 letters in the alphabet, some sounds are from a single letter, whilst others are made through a combination of two or more letters. When children are able to match speech sounds with the correct letter or combination of letters, they are then enabled to be able to learn to read, spell and write words.
Children using this methodology then learn to blend/synthesise sounds to form words. This process is termed synesthetic phonics. For example, a child might be taught to read the word ‘sat’ by first learning the individual sounds that represent the letters ‘s’, ‘a’ and ‘t’, and then blending these sounds together to make the word ‘sat’. This process of recognising and combining sounds to be able to read is known as decoding. In reverse, a blended word can be broken up into individual sounds to spell, which is known as encoding.
However, recent research has established that the learning of synthetic phonics should be combined with the reading of whole texts, which include decodable words, and that children understand the words that they are reading, and do not simply decode sounds.
This is the point at which a school reading scheme comes into play. It should contain a variety of engaging texts that allow for success and monitored progression in a child’s reading journey. The books should include synthetic phonics practice and decodable words for the children to develop their reading.
Children should move towards being able to read simple sentences using their synthetic knowledge, without the need to guess words related to pictures. Decodable reading books are short books with words composed of the letters and sounds that the children are learning. Children will develop a sense of achievement and then are keen to read the next book.
Of course, how quickly a child develops at a young age depends on the individual child, and the time allocated to learning to read within the school day.
Our school places a heavy emphasis on the importance of reading and developing a lifelong love of reading. All Eupheus children from Pre-Reception upwards learn about phonics, develop their phonetical awareness and move onto learning synthetic phonics and decoding skills from Reception class upwards. Our school is rich in books, storytelling and the enjoyment of reading time is built into every day throughout the school.
In our age of technology and the availability of digital texts, it is very important that younger children learn to read using physical texts. Research into eye movements has revealed that those reading digital text are more likely to skim or read nonlinearly, looking for key words to give the idea of the text and then jump to the end. Therefore, digital texts should be reserved for more fluent, older children.
As parents, we can help our children to learn to read in numerous ways:
▪ Read to your children every day as part of a routine. Choose fun, repetitive picture books. Rhyming books are also highly engaging for younger children.
▪ Familiarise yourself with the correct phonic sounds.
▪ Look for opportunities to develop phonetic awareness – the ‘I Spy’ game is excellent for this.
▪ Look out for written words in everyday life such as menus and labels. Point them out in situations such as supermarkets and read them to your child.
▪ Encourage your child to complete a variety of jigsaw puzzles. They will help with decoding, coordination and memory.
Read and talk about the books that you have read and loved as a child. Revisit some of the classics as children will model adult behaviour. Reading is a great joy and pleasure. There is no greater gift to bestow on our children than a love of reading.
‘There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island’
– Walt Disney