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.

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