My first grade grandson had an “Ah ha!” moment while reading to me this week.
He was reading a short chapter book especially meant for beginning readers. Almost all the words were short-vowel, one-syllable words. Many of them were repeated for reinforcement. Most pages contained only four or five short sentences. Every page had line drawings to give extra meaning.
Usually when he reads, he sounds out every word and then says the complete word. But this time—except for unfamiliar words—he said aloud just the word, not the phonics within the word.
“Gramma,” he said, his eyes bright. “I read fast! I didn’t have to say all the letter sounds. Did you hear?”
“You read great!” I said, and we high-fived.
My grandson didn’t know it, but he made a transition that all good readers eventually make. Instead of reading individual letters, he read individual words and in a couple of cases, individual phrases.
When children are learning to read, we tell children to sound out words, not to memorize the look of words. But in fact, when we encounter a word often enough, we no longer need to sound it out. We recognize it from its appearance.
Elite athletes go through a similar phase. A great diver doesn’t need to think about which way his palms are facing or which leg to lead his spring with or how to tuck his body or whether his feet are pointed at the same angle. He has done the individual parts of the dive hundreds—thousands—of times and he has developed muscle memory.
As adults, that’s what you and I do whenever we read. Unless we encounter an unfamiliar word, we recognize words and phrases and no longer need to read individual letters or even individual words. We read chunks.
Test this idea on yourself. As you are reading these words, are you pausing over each word? Or are you reading chunks of words? For example, in the second sentence, didn’t you read, “As you are reading—these words—are you pausing—over each word?”
I am so proud of my grandson’s progress in reading. From the day kindergarten ended abruptly in March, he has continued to learn to read using a phonics approach. How wonderful for him to recognize his own progress. And how lucky for me to be sitting by his side when he did.