Is teaching a child to read "rocket science?" In many ways it is. Reading is not a "natural" skill but rather a set of complex skills that require direct instruction. Children develop oral language skills through listening and mimicking, but reading is much more difficult. Reading requires the brain to view and recognize orthographic symbols, associated each one with a sound, process the sounds quickly enough to "blend" them into a word and then access the meaning of the word so that it makes sense. And this development progresses through various stages, from word reading to phrase, sentence, and passage reading. Even more complicated, at the sentence and passage level, good readers are also making instantaneous observations, comparisons, judgments, corrections--well before the word is read. Not surprisingly, these skills are all require adequate underlying processes. For example, the child must possess adequate vision and visual processing skills, adequate hearing and auditory processing skills, good memory skills and an appropriate attention span. No easy feat, right?
For hundreds of years, children have been learning to read under all kinds of circumstances. Yet in recent years, research has helped educators to realize that reading is not "magic." Children do not just "pick up" reading. It is a skills that requires the guidance of an experienced and trained educator. We have also learned, through recent research, the methods matter. While there is a percentage of children who will learn to read no matter what the instructional method, there is an equal percentage of students who learn better through a direct, explicit, structured and sequential approach. In fact, there are some children who will not learn any other way. Moreover, we know that all children can benefit from a direct and sequential approach.
So...what does that mean? Consider math instruction. We would never even consider teaching addition or subtraction before we have taught students to identify and name numerals and identify and count quantities. That just does not make sense. Yet in many schools or educational centers, students are "learning to read" well before they have mastered basic letter/sound skills. They are memorizing sight words and stories. Further, the "hidden" reading skills are often never taught at all! These skills include: rhyming, syllable segmenting, word and sound counting, phoneme manipulation. Without these skills, our children lack the skills to unlock words. While they may be able to "sight" read to some degree and they may even be able to make use of context clues to guess words they have never seen before, children who lack the "tools of the trade" will, inevitably, suffer the consequences. And, since reading and spelling are reciprocal skills, poor reading skills will eventually affect spelling and writing as well.
So what's a parent or teacher to do? Supporting a child's reading development is not complicated at all. First, students need a solid understanding of the alphabet. They should be able to recognize, name and sequence all 26 letters--both upper and lower case (keep in mind that books are mostly lowercase and in order for a child to begin reading, he must be able to recognize and associate sounds with lowercase letters). Alphabet puzzles, index cards, magnetic letters and alphabet books will assist with this. Children also need a foundation in phonemic awareness skills. These are the building block skills for learning to read. To teach these skills, children require a language rich environment. Songs, rhyming stories (remember age-old nursery rhymes? These are the perfect tool for building rhyme and sound awareness), and simple games will go a long way toward building these foundational skills. Can your child supply a rhyme (In the house, I saw a _________)? Can she manipulate sounds to create a nonsense rhyme (exa meeny olla meeny ooowaa chawalla meeny)? Can he segment words orally into their syllabic parts (how many parts in bron-to-saur-us? Let's clap one time for each part.) Can she manipulate sounds (say donkey without the key; say raindrop without the rain; say cow without the /c/ sound)? Finally, students must learn the sound (or sounds) for each letter (or group of letters). This skill can be developed by associating letters with objects, pictures or names that begin with the target sound and can progress to medial and ending sounds (e.g. find a word that has the /o/ sound in the middle). These skills are easily developed by using a set of flash cards (store bought or hand made on index cards) to drill and review, match (e.g. the child places Tt on the table, Rr on the rug, Ss by the sink, Cc on the car, etc...) Students can also make their own alphabet books using pictures from magazines or their own illustrations. A "junk" box can be handy for making games where children can match letter cards--by first, middle or final sounds.
Once sounds are mastered, students will need to practice the skill of "blending" and segmenting real words. Ideally, students will beging with a controlled group of sounds (e.g. the short vowels and hard consonants) and gradually increase their sound knowledge to include complex spelling groupings (e.g. igh). To teach this skill, short vowel CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words can be dictated to students who use the letter cards to spell words (no need to be able to form letters properly in order to read and spell). Alternately, as a more independent approach, objects (e.g. a toy cat, dog, box, cup, etc...) can be laid out and children can spell the words one by one then ask the instructor to check their work.
For added practice, a word bank can be made of the words the child spells. These cards in the word bank can be used for reading practice. Using the word bank, ask the child to: "show me the word rug," "show me cat" or lay out the objects and ask the child to "match the words with the objects they go with." Hold the word card up and ask the child to "sound this word out."
Students must also develop important visual awareness skills. On a basic level, students must know that print has meaning. Words in books or on signs or even on pencil boxes are there for a reason and they convey information. Students should also begin to develop their ability to visually recognize letter sequences. For example, student may recognize the word STOP on a sign or recognize the name of their favorite toy or cereal. The student should be able to match print visually (recognize a pair of matching words). This skill should begin to generalize so that a student can recognize that a word may be written in various sizes, colors, fonts or locations and for a variety of reasons. Students should also be taught to recognize words within words (or even similarities). For example, within the word shop is the word hop. Students must also be able to view letter sequences and use developing phonological awareness skills to decode or "sound out" the word. Again, these skills can be easily taught through games. Concentration can be played with familiar or unfamiliar words. To do this, make 2 sets of words (feel free to use different fonts or colors, etc...which adds another layer of discrimination), mix the cards up, place them face-down on the table or floor and take turns choosing two cards attempting to get a matching pair. Words can be written or cut out of magazines.
Basic sight words, which cannot be sounded out, must be taught visually. Therefore, building these skills is important. Using flashcards, student can visually match and/or sort sight words. Begin with only 2 or 3 words and allow the student to become comfortable with them. If the child is beginning to decode phonetic words, sight words can be paired with words from the child's word bank to make short phrases (e.g. the cat, a dog). Children can also hunt for sight words in magazines, cut them out and glue them on graphs or make a sight word book. If a child is struggling, visual shaping is a good approach to try. For example, make a set of color word card pairs, writing one set in black ink and the other set in the color of the word (e.g. write orange with an orange pen). Eventually, fade the colored set so that you have two black and white pairs. For number words, write the number on one set of cards. Keep in mind that the child may not be able to read the cards, but the goal is to match them visually. Word searches are other way to develop visual skills. As another idea, give the child several words written on post it notes and ask him/her to find the words in his/her favorite book. When he/she spots the word, the post it gets stuck to it. Or go on a word scavenger hunt. Make a set of word cards that match words in the room (or house or store, etc...). Give the child the words (start with 2 or 3 and expand) and ask him/her if he can find the matching words in the environment. You can choose favorite cereal names or snacks, appliance names (Sunbeam), toys (Barbie), etc... Label the environment. Write the names of objects or family members on cards and attach them. Above all, help the child to use these experiences to explore similarities among the words ("hey, I can see s-u-n in this word!") and discover patterns both visually and auditorially. Remember, the goal is not for the child to memorize any words. The objective is to build visual skills that will work in tandem with phonological skills to refine the process of learning to read.
Like anyone, children enjoy successes and every success enhances a child's desire and determination to learn more. Bob Books provide good early reading practice in a controlled and phonetic way. Another great way to expand early reading skills is to have children make their own books. Using controlled vocabulary, create a short, mostly phonetic book (e.g. Jan is a cat. Jan is red. Jan can run and hop. Jan can nap.). Incorporate sight words as the student acquires them. Then, allow the student to illustrate his/her book and read it!
Early development of pre-reading skills is essential for strong reading skills to develop. However, it is equally important for parents and teachers to recognize when a student is struggling with reading and to intervene as soon as possible. Good reading skills can offer a lifetime of rewards!