How Children Learn to Read

Reading skills are like building blocks.

To learn to read well, children need the blocks of knowing the sounds of letters and the blocks of knowing the meanings of words (vocabulary), word parts (grammatical markers) and groups of words (overall meaning or semantics). To build these foundations of reading, children need effective reading instruction.

The best ways for parents to learn about the kinds of reading instruction at their child’s school is to talk with teachers, listen to him or her talk about what they do during the day, and examine homework assignments. Knowing the differences between phonics and whole language – the two main approaches to teaching reading – can help parents determine what methods their child’s school is using to teach reading.

Phonics focuses on the sounds of letters and words

A phonics approach focuses instruction on learning to associate printed letters and combinations of letters with their corresponding sounds. Phonics instruction gives students strategies to unlock or decode words.

A phonics approach to teaching reading can include:

* “Sounding out” words as a way of figuring out new words. For example, in a phonics lesson, “cat” would be sounded out as “cc-aa-tt.”
* Practice worksheets or exercises on letter sounds, matching pictures with spoken words, short vowel/long vowel or letter of the week.

Whole language focuses on comprehension

The whole language approach is based on the understanding that reading is finding the meaning in written language. Multiple experiences with words – written and spoken – are what children need to learn meanings of words.

A whole language approach to teaching reading can include:

* Teaching reading and writing throughout the day in the context of the lesson topics
* Teachers emphasizing storybooks rather than worksheets as well as multiple writing opportunities

A balanced approach can help all children learn to read

A decade of research shows us that there is no one best way to build students’ literacy skills. A balanced approach to teaching reading combines a strong foundation in phonics with whole language methods. Only through more than one kind of instruction can students gain the skills to recognize and manipulate the sounds of letters and words and the skills to understand what they read. Since all children learn differently, only a balanced approach to teaching reading can give all children the skills they need to read well.

An effective reading program

From long-term studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health, it is known that an effective reading program should include the following components.

* Recognize that students learn to read in a certain order: first they must understand that words are made up of different sounds, then associate sounds with written words, and finally they can decode words and read groups of words.
* Students who have trouble learning to read need to be specifically taught the relationships of letters, words and sounds. (Awareness of letter/sound relationships is the main tool good readers use to decode unfamiliar words.)
* Each child needs a different amount of practice to be a fluent reader.
* Phonics instruction should be based on individual student needs and taught as part of a comprehensive, literature-based reading program.
* Abundant opportunities for children to read at their own reading level help them to learn to read for meaning and enjoy reading.
* Highly trained teachers can help children develop good, overall literacy skills: good vocabularies, knowledge of correct syntax and spelling, reasoning skills and questioning skills.

Reading instruction for children with learning disabilities

For children with language-based learning disabilities, learning to read is especially difficult because they have a harder time with sounds of letters and words than their peers. Research indicates that because phonics instruction focuses on recognizing and manipulating sounds of letters and words, more intense phonics instruction may be beneficial for children with learning disabilities.
Early warning signs of learning disabilities

From preschool through fourth grade, parents can watch for the following signs their child may have a learning disability:

* Slow to learn the connection between letters and sounds
* Difficulty “sounding out” unknown words
* Repeatedly misidentifying known words
* Makes consistent reading and spelling errors including letter reversals (b/d), inversions (m/w), transpositions (felt/left), and substitutions (house/home)
* Transposes number sequences and confuses arithmetic signs (+, -, x, /, =)
* Difficulty understanding or remembering what is read because so much time and effort is spent figuring each word

If a child regularly displays one or more of these behaviors, he or she may have a learning disability and parents should seek appropriate testing and intervention from their child’s school.

With diagnostic tests, it can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy which students in kindergarten and first grade will have difficulty learning to read. Identifying reading difficulties early means children have more time to learn to be successful readers. Since reading is learned more easily and effectively during the early years, identifying language-based learning disabilities and providing appropriate interventions give children more time to learn to read well.