Recognizing sounds come first, not recognizing letters

Which comes first, reading or speaking?  Speaking, of course.  A one-year-old can say a few words, but hardly any one-year-old can read.  Most two-year-olds can say hundreds of words and can form tiny sentences, but hardly any two-year-olds can read.

Which comes first, recognizing sounds or recognizing letters? Recognizing sounds, of course.  A one-year-old can recognize and repeat the sounds of many words, but few one-year-olds can recognize letters.  A two-year-old knows hundreds of words, but hardly any two-year-olds recognize more than a handful of letters.

So if sounds and speaking come before recognizing letters and reading, why do some teachers teach the ABC’s first—recognizing visual “pictures” of sounds—rather than teaching the sounds of our language first?

Are we teaching reading backwards?

What if instead of teaching children to read “cat” using ABC’s, we taught children to read “cat” orally, with no ABC’s?  What if we taught children how to recognize the separate sounds that form words like “cat”?  What if we said “c-a-t” slowly, emphasizing the “c,” “a,” and “t” sounds without ever naming those sounds with letter names?  What if we asked preschoolers to break down little words like “cat” into their beginning, middle and ending sounds without ever naming those sounds with letter names?

This would be a radically different approach to teaching reading.  But this approach would align with what researchers are learning about how our brains learn to read.

The foundation of reading is not ABC’s.  The foundation of reading is sounds, sounds listened to by a child and sounds repeated aloud by a child.

How would that work in practice?

  • You, the teacher, would say, one-at-a-time, the 40-plus sounds of the English language. Your student would repeat those sounds, one at a time.  If some sounds were hard for the student to say, you would repeat those sounds and ask the child to repeat those sounds until you were sure the child could hear and pronounce those sounds correctly.
  • Next, one-at-a-time, you would say some tiny words and ask the child to say each word and to say the sounds in the word. You would model how to do this with many words until the child knew what was expected.  You would make it a game, looking around and saying the name of an object nearby like “bat.”  You would sound out the word slowly—“b,” “a,” “t”—and ask the child to do the same.  At first this might be hard for the child, but once she figures out what is expected, she would sound out words quickly.
  • With practice, the child would understand that individual sounds, when combined, form words. Only then would you introduce ABC’s.

Pronunciation of words is an important aspect of learning to read.  Our brains store the sounds of words just like they store the meaning and the look of words. In your mind, right now, as you are reading these words, you are saying the words, right?  And you are remembering the meaning of those words, though at this stage of your life, that might be so automatic that you are unaware of it.  Long ago when you were learning to read, it was the sound of the words which came first to you, long before you knew what the words meant or before you could decipher the letter patterns of words.  Sounds come first.

For more information, read the research of Linnea Ehri (2002).

How to teach tiny, short-vowel (CVC) words to a beginning reader

So you are teaching your four-year-old to read.  She can duplicate the 40+ sounds of the English language.  She can recognize many of those sounds at the beginnings of some words.

Now it is time to pair letter sounds with a handful of letters and to form words.  Your child might not be able to recognize all the sounds yet, but as long as she can recognize some of them, she can begin to learn words.

Most phonics programs start with three letter words using the vowel sound of “short a” and easily recognizable consonant sounds such as “b,” “h,” “m,” “t” and “s.”  You could just as readily start with the vowel sound of “short o” and other consonant sounds.  Choose one short vowel sound and four or five consonant sounds which you think the child knows.

I recommend you use letter tiles.  If you can find lower case letter tiles, great, but if not, use capital letter tiles.

Show the child a letter tile and ask the child to name its sound.  If the child is not sure of that letter sound, don’t use that letter tile yet.  Choose a different one.

Lay out three letter tiles which form a word, such as “h,” “a,” and “t.”  Separate the tiles by an inch or two.  Say the sound represented by each letter as you point to the letter.  Ask the child to do the same.  Now, slowly move the letter tiles closer together while pointing and saying the letter sounds until you are saying “hat.”

Try to make this a game.  Reward the child with a high-five when she is able to say the word as you are moving the letter tiles closer and closer.  Then try another word.  If you keep the vowel and ending consonant the same at first, all the child needs to concentrate on is the first letter.  So after “hat,” you might try “bat,” “mat,” and “sat.”  Review each word several times.

What your child is learning is called phonics, or the forming of words from letter sounds.  Some children will pick it up quickly and others will take many lessons using just those same half dozen letters.  Don’t rush the child.  Keep the learning time as game-like as possible.  Aim for short lessons of ten minutes here and there rather than a half hour at a time, especially if your child is a young four-year-old or is resistant.

When the child knows the handful of words ending with “t,” change the ending letter to one of the other consonants, such as “m.”  Go through the process again, moving the letter tiles closer and closer until the child can hear the words “ham,” Sam,” and “bam.”  When you are sure she knows how to recognize and pronounce the words ending in “m,” alternate words ending in “m” with the already learned words ending in “t.”

These three-letter words are sometimes referred to as CVC for consonant, vowel, consonant.

Resist the urge to move quickly.  You want your child to build confidence about reading.  To reinforce her confidence, you could start a phone or computer document listing all the words she knows.  Or you could hang such a document on the refrigerator.  As she sees the list growing, she will feel proud.

So you’ve decided to teach your four-year-old to read–part 2

Once you are sure your child can hear and say the sounds of the English language, the next step is to make your child understand that we use letters to represent those sounds.child making letter T with his body

One good way is to explain that people a long time ago figured out how to make pictures of sounds.  Those pictures of sounds are called letters.  In English those pictures are called ABC’s.

Say the child’s name.  Emphasize the sound at the beginning of the name.  Then show or draw the letter which the child’s name begins with.  You don’t need to call the letter by its name yet; rather, call the letter by the sound it represents.

For example, if your child’s name is Teddy, say his name emphasizing the “t” sound at the beginning of the name.  Show or draw the letter “t” but when you point to it, say the “t” sound.  Collect or point out objects which begin with the same sound.  Help the child to see that the “t” sound is in many words.  Kids will hear the sound more readily at the beginnings of words.

Some kids catch on fast and you can add another letter sound almost immediately.  For others you should focus on one sound at a time for several days.  Start with names of family members.  Focus on the first sound of the name, not middle sounds or ending sounds.  Move on to objects the child sees or uses daily.  Keep reviewing the letter sounds the child has already learned.

Stick to sounds which follow a one-to-one sound-to-letter correspondence.  For now, avoid names like Yvonne or Celine in which the first sound of the name is not represented by the letter usually associated with that sound.  Names which begin with digraphs like Shelly or Thad should also be avoided for now.  Four-year-olds can understand one-to-one logic.  Save words in which one sound is represented by two letters until later.

So you’ve decided to teach your four-year-old to read

But you don’t know where to begin.  Well, you’re in luck, because I do.  And for the next few months I am going to offer a sequenced approach to teaching reading to a beginner.

Reading starts with hearing sounds properly.  Make sure your child can hear the 44 or so sounds of English.  How?  You say a sound and ask the child to repeat the sound.  If the child can repeat the sound properly, he or she can hear it properly.  If not, work on the few sounds which your child cannot pronounce.  Say words with the sound in them.  Ask the child to mimic you.  Show pictures of everyday objects which have the sound in them.  Ask the child to say the word.

The 44 sounds are listed below.  In some parts of the US, 43 or 45 sounds might be used because of regional dialects.  The same holds true of other English speaking countries.

At this point, you needn’t use the word “letter” or teach the ABC’s.  Hearing and speaking sounds comes first.

Is it better to teach three-letter or two-letter words first

Most phonics systems begin with three letter words like “dad” and “pat.”  You could just as easily begin with two letter words like “at” and “ab.”  Don’t worry if the word isn’t real.  A four- or five-year-old child won’t recognize that some words are not real.  If the child seems perplexed, explain that “ak” is not a real word.  But if the child doesn’t question a word, as long as he pronounces it correctly, skip the explanations.

I have found that skipping the two-letter short-vowel words is a mistake.   If a child becomes used to always seeing a consonant at the beginning of a word, he might become confused if a word starts with a vowel.  If a child knows his sounds and letter correspondence, then there is no reason why two-letter words should confuse him.  To avoid this problem, I would not wait to teach two-letter words.

When the child has successfully combined most of the first handful of letters into words, add more consonants but keep the same vowel.  “H,” “j” and “l” are good second choices.  You might think that “h” has different sounds when combined with “c” and “s” (“ch” and “sh”).  True.  But as a first letter, “h” always sounds like an “h.”  The sound of “h” has a one-to-one correspondence to the letter “h” at the beginnings of words; it is distinct.  The child won’t be confused because no words end in only “h.”

How long does this take?  Some kids pick up the “code” of reading almost intuitively but for others it’s a long struggle to learn.  Don’t pressure a child to move on if the child isn’t ready.

Learning to read begins with mimicking sounds

So many preschools teach the ABC’s before they teach letter sounds.  This is a mistake.  Knowing that a certain triangular shape is called an “A” is less important than knowing how to say and recognize the sound of “a.”

When I teach a beginning reader, I teach with sounds, not letters.

First I say the 42 sounds of English and ask the child to repeat those sounds.  You might think, “Is that really necessary?”  Yes, it is.  Almost always I encounter a sound or two that a child cannot say properly.  For one child it was the “z” sound.  For another it was the “ch” sound.

Reading begins with sounds, with recognizing the sounds of English and with pronouncing those sounds correctly.  Once you are sure a child can do that, only then is it proper to associate a sound with a letter.

Child seeing letter on dog's collar

One technique I have found useful is to associate a letter sound with a particular noun which begins with that sound.  This can be especially useful for vowel sounds.  I taught a four-year-old to read this way.  Picturing the known object which began with that letter sound helped her to sound out unknown objects.  When she saw picture of an ostrich, she would say “o as in octopus” and compare that “o” sound with the sound in ostrich to see if the words started with the same sound.  I used pictures of an apple, elephant, igloo, octopus and umbrella, but any pictures would do as long as they are familiar and easy to remember.  For brand new readers, I kept those pictures on the desk.

To teach a child reading, I start with consonant sounds which are distinct.  The English alphabet has 16 sounds which always sound the same at the beginning of words.  Those 16 letters are B D F H J K L M N P Q[u] R T V X and Z.

The letters “b,” “d,” “k,” and “p”  are distinct because no other consonants sound like these sounds.  A child can make a “b” sound and always match it with the letter “b”—a one-to-one correspondence.  That is what I mean by distinct.

But other sounds are not distinct.  For example, a “c” and an “s” sound quite distinct sometimes but if a “c” is followed by an “e” or an “i,” it is not distinct.  And an “s” can sound like a “z” sometimes.  A “g” can sound like a “g” or a “j” depending on which letter follows it.  There isn’t a one-to-one correspondence of a single sound to  one letter, so they are not distinct matches.

All vowels make multiple sounds.  When you start combining letter sounds to form words, start with short vowel sounds, some of which are more distinct than others.  Short “a” and “o” sounds are distinct.  “E” and “i” sounds can be hard to differentiate.  “U” sounds are easier than “e” and “i” sounds, but are harder to differentiate than “a” and “o” sounds.  So I would start associating short vowel sounds with either “a” or “o” first.  Most phonics systems start with “a,” so if you are using prepared materials, you might as well start with “a.”  But really, “a” or “o” would suffice.

Let’s recap.  Suppose a child can recognize and pronounce the sounds of English.  Then it is time to choose one short vowel and five or six distinct consonant sounds and begin to associate letters with them.  When the child can correctly assign one sound to each letter, it is time to form words with them.

Younger kids in a class are more likely to be assessed as ADHD

For months I have been teaching a playful kindergartener how to read, but progress has been slow.  Recently I learned that this child has a November birthday and is probably the youngest in her private school class.  Her birthday comes several months after the cutoff date for public school kindergarten registration.

Now I understand that she is not slow to learn at all.  She is doing fine for her age.  Most kids her age are in pre-K.  If she were too, she would be one of the oldest in her class, not the youngest, and one of the most advanced.

New research shows that not only is the ability to read affected by the age of a child in a class, but so is the likelihood of that child being diagnosed as ADHD.

The younger the child is in a class, the more likely that child is to be diagnosed as ADHD, according to findings just published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

According to that journal, “rates of A.D.H.D. diagnosis and treatment were 34 percent higher among children born in August than among children born in September in states with a Sept. 1 school entry-age cutoff.”

Knowing this is important if you have a child with a summertime birthday.  Your active, exuberant child might be perfectly normal for his age, but might be more active and distracted than older children in his class.  His teacher might suggest he is hyperactive.  You might begin him on medical treatments which can be harmful and which aren’t necessary if the child’s biological age is considered.

If your child with a summertime birthday is scheduled to start kindergarten next fall, consider his activity level.  All little children are active, but some are noticeably more active than others.  If your child is like this, he might have trouble sitting still in class, listening, following directions, and focusing.  He might have trouble monitoring his own behavior and keeping it appropriate to the setting.

Another study shows that younger children in grades are more likely to be assessed as ADHD by teachers, probably because those children are being compared to the group as a whole.

If your child will be young for kindergarten, consider waiting another year to start him.  There might be a cost to you (if he is in day care, or if you, the mother, are hoping to return to full time employment), but the cost to your child over his academic career could be greater.

I’ve often thought that schools should have two “crops” of kindergarteners:  older students starting in the fall and younger students starting in January.  Too much of an age and developmental difference exists between a five-year-old child and a six-year-old child to collect them all in the same class.