Look at this sentence. Now, read it out loud.
Having trouble? This is unsurprising.
Unless you are Korean, this is probably just a collection of symbols that you do not understand.
But this is what our children are faced with when they first begin to read: a bunch of random symbols that make no sense to them whatsoever. They know they’re probably useful because the grown-ups seem to use them a lot, but still, they’re just a collection of symbols they don’t understand yet.
So how do we begin to read?
First of all, we are read to – the most joyous time to spend with this ‘bunch of symbols’. We curl up with mum or dad and they open books with intriguing pictures and read us the most wonderful stories. We want to hear these stories again and again. Eventually we know these stories so well that we can predict the words that are coming. Eventually we know these stories so well we can attempt to read them to ourselves. Eventually we know these words and stories so well we can read each word perfectly to someone else.
Then there are all the words around us. Most importantly: the name on my door, the name on my bag, the name on my coat – my name! But also, other words I begin to need: dinosaur, octopus, Rice Krispies, Ipswich Town FC. I see them on my T-shirt, my cereal box, my classroom wall. They are important to me. I understand them. I need them. I can read them.
Whether it be the word missing at the end of the sentence in my favourite story, or the words on my cereal box, there is one key reason I can read them: context. I am familiar with this word because I use it a lot, I know what it is related to, I know when I use it and why I use it. So, when it’s breakfast time and mum goes to the cupboard and gets out the blue box, I know that the symbols on the front must say ‘Rice Krispies’ because that’s what we call those tasty things in that blue box.
Try reading this:
Interesting? Thought provoking? Enjoyable?
Unless you’re a nuclear physicist, probably not.
Why not? Because we don’t understand the context. We have no idea what it is talking about or why it might be interesting or important. Context is everything. We are all able readers but reading this was a real challenge because we had no clue of the context. This is why the context is so important to the child learning to read (or the adult who already can) – without it, it’s a load of gobbledygook.
Context is the key component to reading (assuming we are interested in it). It helps us to make predictions, to infer, to understand. It helps us to recognise the words, to become familiar with their shapes and the sounds of their shapes. We can all be in agreement in this.
However, ‘sounds’ bring us onto a difficult area with regards to reading. Synthetic phonics has become a large focus of government policy for early reading. The party line being that children without a strong grasp of phonic skills will not be good readers. Added to which, to be even better readers they should also be able to memorise all of the different phonic terms.
Do you know what a digraph is? A trigraph? A grapheme?
Can you read?
Are they therefore hugely important when it comes to learning to read? Definitely not.
That’s not to say that phonics is pointless, or that it doesn’t have a place. But usually the letter sounds at the beginning and end of words, and a grasp of blending some sounds together is enough, along with the context, to get us on our way to decoding and therefore beginning to build our sight vocabulary.
Try reading this nonsense:
Easy right? But you didn’t use phonics, nor would it have helped you. You got the idea of the context, you recognised the letters of each word (particularly the first and last) and you used your existing sight vocabulary to read each word very quickly, without really having to think about it.
Therefore, yes some phonics is useful, but drilling our children and placing an emphasis on this being the only way to read unfamiliar words, only makes reading more complex.
Reading is not a mark of intelligence. Given the right environment, support, and most importantly, time, anyone can learn to read. Some of us will learn quickly, some of us will take a little longer. But eventually we will all get there.
Below is a summary of 9 easy ways to make reading more difficult, and 3 difficult ways to make it easier, taken from Frank Smith’s, ‘Reading Without Nonsense.’
Nine rules of reading instruction that adults would do well not to follow are:
- Aim for early mastery of the rules of reading.
It is most definitely not the case that the younger your child learns to read the better they will be at it. Readiness for learning is key. Our Scandinavian friends do not begin reading in schools until the age of seven, yet their reading scores at age 11 are comparable if not higher than those of children in the UK. Why spend four years slogging over learning to read from the age of 3, when just by waiting for readiness (as we do with walking, talking, or even toilet training) we can accomplish the same in four months.
- Ensure that phonic rules are learned and used. There are 44 sounds linked to over 280 letters and letter combinations. Learning them all and knowing when to use them is not an easy or pleasurable way to learn to read. If you are struggling to learn to read, this will undoubtedly make the process harder.
- Teach letters or words one at a time, making sure each one is learned before moving on. We don’t learn to speak by teaching one sound, then the next, then the next. We envelop our children in the spoken language; they have the need to use it themselves; they make attempts, they fail, we model, they improve. This should be just the same as reading.
- Make word perfect reading a prime objective. To slow a child down to read absolutely every word with accuracy and precision is to make reading a task not a pleasure. Encourage them to develop fluency rather than perfection. No one wants to hear a machine read every word perfectly; instead we would all prefer a human voice read with enjoyment and understanding, even if this means the odd word is inaccurate.
- Discourage guessing; insist that children read carefully. Context is everything when reading, it therefore makes sense that ‘guessing’ is in fact a very useful way to read unfamiliar words. By doing this they are attempting to make meaning of the text, they are developing their prediction skills, and ultimately are often likely to be correct. Obviously extensive amounts of guessing is not preferred, however this would not be the fault of the child, but instead perhaps the wrong book – time to change it and try another.
- Insist upon accuracy all the time. To enjoy a story, fluency is necessary. If a child is reading happily and getting the meaning of the words on the page, to stop them mid flow to correct a word would be detrimental. As long as the word makes sense and doesn’t vastly alter the meaning of the story, there is no need. After all, we spend much of our time scan-reading. Reading every word perfectly is not necessary and stopping them only sends the message that they’re not doing well enough and that reading is a test.
- Correct errors immediately. To enjoy and understand what we are reading, we need to develop fluency. By stopping at every wrong word straight away we are losing the meaning of the story, and the enjoyment. By waiting for the end of the sentence, or page, or chapter, we can go back to the word if necessary. But stopping there and then is detrimental to the development of essential reading skills.
- Identify and treat problem readers as early as possible. Everyone will learn to read, eventually. As babies and toddlers, we are told over and again how they will roll over when they are ready, they will walk when they are ready, they will talk when they are ready. The same goes for reading. Unfortunately, government guidelines change their stance on this when children arrive in school, stating an expected level at age 5, 7 and 11. However we must have faith that it will come. Even children with diagnoses of educational difficulties such as dyslexia will learn to read, it may just take longer than their peers. But we must continue to believe in them.
- Use every opportunity during reading instruction to improve spelling and written expression, and also insist on the best possible spoken English. What a drag that would be. Where’s the fun in that? “Now sit up straight Johnny and read aloud properly. After this I’m going to test you on the spelling of the key words you’ve read today! Now get on with it.” We don’t think so.
Three ways to help children to learn to read:
- Understanding the functions of print. Words are useful. We can read to enjoy a story, we can read to learn how to play a game, we can read to tell us where to be careful. Reading is for meaning.
- Gaining familiarity with written language. The only way children can become familiar with written language, before they can extend their knowledge by reading for themselves, is to be read to.
- Getting the chance to learn. It is important to read to children, but even more important to read with them. Read together. Enjoy together.
In summary children will not learn to read with instruction, insistence and factory style schemes of work. Instead they will learn to read by being immersed in a world of story and language, by seeing those around them enjoying this immersion and by having reading made a pleasurable experience to be shared.
Above all else we must have faith. They will learn.
Believe in the child.
We use the Jolly Phonics and Oxford Reading Tree programme to support the teaching of early reading.