There’s More to it than Sounds
When you think of reading, what do you think of? As a reaction to the whole language failures in many state school classrooms, the average home educator automatically thinks of phonics. But actually, what is phonics and what part does it have to play in the reading process?
“Phonics” or “phonetics” refers to the 42 individual sounds of which the English language is made. Phonemic awareness is broader than phonics as it also such things as includes awareness of blends, syllables, initial & final sounds and rhyme. (By the way, Dr Seuss books are an excellent way to develop phonemic awareness – good for bonding too J.) Phonemic awareness is imperative for reading success but it is only one part of the reading process.
Alongside a good sequential phonics programme, the child should also be exposed to and actually specifically taught sight words. These are words that do NOT fit the phonetic patterns that the other 80% of words do. A good phonics programme will already include sight words (or ‘tricky’ words as Jolly Phonics calls them) but you can supplement any phonics programme with your own lists or flashcards. Playing games like ‘snap’, ‘memory’ or ‘bingo’ are excellent ways of developing sight vocabulary in non-tedious ways. Interestingly, many sight words are included in the most frequent word lists, meaning they appear in writing over and over again e.g. the, was and said. Without knowledge of these words, it is impossible to read because you simply cannot work them out according to the phonetic patterns.
As well as a good phonemic awareness and knowledge of sight words, it is also important your child reads the words in the correct order (syntax) and understands the meaning (semantics). You can check on comprehension through oral or written questioning or narration (where the child retells what has been read.) Remember to ask questions that require higher level thinking skills e.g. “why”, “what if” and “how” as well as recall questions of different complexities e.g. “where” and “when”.
When a child comes to the text, it is important to have at least some prior knowledge on which to build the new knowledge. Very recent research shows that this is THE most important part of the reading process. One of the most important things you can do with non-readers (I prefer the term pre-readers) is read to or with them as it builds general knowledge and vocabulary. You still need to spent 10 mins a day in specific reading instruction but you can spend as long as you like reading TO them– hours at a time if your voice can hold out although anything is better than nothing.
It is vital that the child goes from being a dependent reader to an independent reader and in order for this to occur, you need to teach two main skills. These are:
Simply put, cueing systems are simply ways in which we work out the meaning of an unknown word. These include sounding out the word, reading the rest of the sentence, looking at the pictures, thinking of other words spelt the same way that are already known or making an educated guess. In most state schools the latter is suggested first whereas I would venture to suggest that a good knowledge of phonics (and ability to accurately string the sounds together – which is quite a different skill altogether but one which we won’t deal with here) will most of the time result in the correct word. Here is my suggested procedure for helping a child work out an unknown word:
1) Sound out the word phonetically from beginning to end
2) Break the word into syllables
3) Blend the syllables together smoothly (this is a VERY important step in the reading process and one which is not taught or practised in a number of poor quality phonics programmes. If your child cannot hear the sound running together, he/she will not be able to read the word.)
4) Read the rest of the sentence and think about what words could make sense (they MUST start with the correct initial sounds.)
5) Make an accurate guess and self check to see if the guess is a sensible one i.e. does the word make sense in context and does it have the correct letters? Before you throw up your hands in horror, I am NOT suggesting that children guess words all the time or that you accept incorrect guesses. We actually do this all the time in our own reading – mostly subconsciously. A child who is afraid to try for fear of making a mistake will be hampered in learning. You need to give them the appropriate tools so that their attempts are logical and more likely to be correct.
6) Ask for help. If no help is available, they can be taught to leave the word out mentally think, “Not sure of that word but it must mean something like….” This will enable them to maintain the gist of the passage and get on with the rest of the story.
Please note that if you are spending more than 20% of the passage/story/book working out unknown words, then the level is too high. Books used for reading instruction should have no more than 20% of unknown words. Any higher levels than that will interrupt the flow, resulting in frustration for the reader. Books read purely for pleasure should be even lower – about 10%.
Self checking of comprehension
Equally as important as cueing systems, is self-checking for comprehension. While this may seem logical, it is actually a skill that needs to be taught. Because they are often deeply absorbed in the reading process (especially when being asked to set the table), it takes time for children to learn how to step back from the reading situation and ask themselves whether they actually understand what is being read. They need to be taught to stop at various points in order to question their own understanding – even as specifically as “Do I understand what I just read?” If the answer is “no”, they need to be taught what to do. Options include:
- - re-reading the text
- - slowing down
- - asking themselves further questions
- - chunking i.e. breaking the text into smaller, understandable chunks.
These are ‘higher level’ thinking skills that don’t come naturally but learning them will help the reader to become independent far quicker. They also need to be taught to read no only the gist of the passage i.e. overall meaning but also the detail. Reading for detail is a much harder skill as it requires the child to slow down and focus more. You can help develop detailed reading skills by getting them to search for specific content. NB Don’t allow skim reading or tracking for this purpose as these are entirely different techniques.
As an aside…many languages have only one sound per letter. English has many letters with more than one sound. The vowel “a”, for example has five. Can you think of them?
In conclusion, reading is a complex skill made up of a combination of phonemic awareness, a good sight word vocabulary, prior knowledge, cueing systems and comprehension. Focusing on all these areas is what helps a young reader move towards reading independence. The only way this can happen is if you read, read and then read some more.
By Erena Fussell
Nicholson, Tom “At the Cutting Edge: Learning to Read and Spell for Success”
Allcock, Joy “Spelling Under Scrutiny”
Dolch sight word list
Jolly Phonics programme
PNCOE “Teaching of Reading” & “Teaching of Language” Notes
Clay, Marie “The Early Detection of Reading Difficulties”
Ó LearnEx 2005. This article may be freely distributed (unabridged) but only with prior permission and acknowledgement of the source.
Erena is a South Auckland based primary school teacher, literacy consultant, small business owner and homeschooler but primarily and most importantly a mum. In her ‘spare’ time she likes to listening to and arranging music.