How do children learn to read?
Research indicates that skilled readers are proficient in being able to decode unfamiliar words, while children with learning difficulties such as dyslexia have a 'neurological glitch' which makes learning to decode and self-teach difficult.
How do children learn to read? Here's a brief summary...
Imagine you are a beginning reader who has never read the word "sip". In English, the letters "s-i-p" represent three individual speech sounds, (/s/-/i/-/p/). If you can say the speech sounds that each letter represents, one after the other, then join (or 'blend') the speech sounds together, you will be able to say the word you are trying to read.
Move your mouse or your finger over the letters to hear the speech sounds!
If you know the spoken word and its meaning, this decoding process leads to word recognition - a triggering of the meaning of the written word ("sip - a small mouthful of liquid"), allowing you to understand what you are reading.
Since written English is a symbolic representation of the speech sounds of the language, an understanding of the individual speech sounds of language (phonemic awareness) helps children to understand the relationship between spoken and written language, making learning to read and spell easier. In order to become independent, competent readers, students must learn to 'crack the code' of written language.
The past several decades of research have provided conclusive evidence that this understanding of the relationship between the speech sounds in language and the letters used to represent those sounds is one of the most crucial skills involved in literacy development. Research has shown that good readers are very skilled at using letter-sound relationships when reading, while difficulty in understanding that words are made up of sounds and just how sounds are represented by letters is a hallmark of the struggling reader.
Decades of research also suggest that children should be taught to read by using a 'phonological approach' - meaning that we should help kids to develop a knowledge of speech sounds and the letters that represent them (to read an excellent summary of this approach and why it works, please click HERE). Furthermore, three national inquiries into the teaching of reading have concluded that a method of teaching reading in which students are firstly taught letter-sound knowledge followed by training in how to use this knowledge to read and spell words is the most effective form of reading instruction. This method of teaching is called `'synthetic phonics', and you can read more about why it should be used in all schools HERE.
For example, there is no reason why the squiggle "s" represents the speech sound /s/ as in "sun". Students learning to read must create an association between this squiggle and the speech sound it represents so that they can decode unfamiliar words that contain it.
Furthermore, these squiggles sometimes combine with other squiggles to represent different speech sounds, as in the word "ship"! Understanding that letters and letter patterns represent certain sounds poses a great challenge to beginning readers since there is no meaningful relationship between the way that letters look and the speech sounds that they normally represent. Learning letter-sound associations is especially difficult for many children who struggle with reading due to difficulties in understanding and processing the speech sounds of language (phonological processing difficulties). Such difficulties are known to be the most common cause of reading failure.
Once children learn the sounds that letters typically represent, they need to be able to rapidly, automatically and accurately apply these skills in joining, or 'blending', sounds together when reading unfamiliar words. The opposite process occurs when spelling. Children need to be able to understand, for example, that the word "stop" contains the four individual sounds /s/-/t/-/o/-/p/, which may be represented in writing as the visual pattern, "stop". This skill is known as 'segmentation'.
So an understanding the relationship between sounds and words allows a reader to "crack the code” of written language. These code cracking skills, combined with vocabulary knowledge, form the backbone of reading and writing ability. They help students to teach themselves new words without relying on another person. Research indicates that skilled readers are proficient in being able to decode unfamiliar words, while children with learning difficulties such as dyslexia typically have trouble with understanding the sound structure of language, especially with phonemic awareness, making learning to decode and self-teach difficult.
In addition to being able to apply sound-symbol knowledge in reading and spelling unfamiliar words, children learning to read need to be able to recognize commonly occurring irregularly spelled words, that is, words which do not conform to typical sound-letter patterns (such as "said", "who" and "yacht"). These words, also called 'sight words', must be learnt with a greater emphasis on visual letter patterns rather than through letter-sound relationships alone.
The objective of Reading Doctor® apps is to make it easier for you to teach beginning and struggling readers to read and spell by providing you with tools that strengthen these core reading skills!
A simple model of the reading process
Let's summarise these skills using a model of the reading process. The diagram below shows a simplified model of reading aloud, in which an intermediate level student will read the word “information”. If the word is very familiar to the student, the word is recognised as a whole (A). However, if the word is unfamiliar to the student, the student must use letter-sound knowledge to combine the constituent parts together in order to correctly decode the word (B). Conversely, if a student wishes to write the word “information”, they may either recall the sequence of letters that represent it ‘by rote’, or they may break the word down into its constituent sound-letter parts (syllables and sounds) in order to write it correctly.
In summary, in order to decode words when reading and encode words when spelling, children need to learn letter-sound relationships (e.g. that the letter “c” makes the sound /k/, as in “cat”, or that the letters “s” and “h” together make the sound /sh/ as in “ship”). Since beginning readers constantly come across unfamiliar words, letter-sound knowledge and the skills required to apply it are very closely related to reading and writing ability in children.
Children who are able to independently decode unfamiliar words are able to teach themselves new words without relying on someone to tell them what the word is. Difficulty in using letter-sound patterns and phonemic awareness skills to decode words results in difficulty with reading and writing. Conversely, strengthening letter-sound pattern knowledge and the underlying phonemic awareness skills required to decode written language results in significant improvements in a student’s ability to read and spell.