Category Archives: letter sounds

The place of phonics in reading instruction

True or false?

  1. Speaking is natural. Reading is not.
  2. All students learn to read differently.
  3. Kids in early grades should receive explicit phonics instruction.
  4. About 2/3 of US fourth graders can read proficiently.

(The answers are at the end of this blog.)

How kids learn to read, how reading should be taught, and how teachers of reading should be taught are still controversial in the US. This is despite an 18-year-old exhaustive study of research on reading—the National Reading Panel— authorized by Congress in 2000 which found that phonics should be the basis of reading instruction.

Even with overwhelming research, many teacher training colleges do not teach would-be teachers how to teach phonics.  And so the graduates of those schools do not teach their students through a phonics-based approach.  As a result, 60% of US fourth graders are NOT proficient readers, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Students who don’t read well by fourth grade

  • Are more likely to fall behind in other subjects.
  • Are less likely to finish high school.
  • Are more likely to be poor readers their whole lives.
  • Are more likely to be poor.
  • Are more likely to be imprisoned.

Scientific research shows that a phonetic approach to reading is crucial.  Our brains are wired to learn to speak and walk without instruction, but we cannot read without instruction.

Yet in 2016, the National Council on Teacher Quality, after reviewing the syllabi of US teacher training programs, found that only 39% are teaching their would-be teachers how to teach reading based on phonics.  This is 18 years after the US study was published!

In other words, teacher training school are either ignoring the research about how children learn to read or are willfully disregarding it.  And as a result, many students are not learning to read.

When I studied for my master’s degree in education in the early 1990’s, I took a reading course in which the instructor belittled the role of phonics in learning to read.  She said it was one of many factors, all about equal.  I thought phonics was fundamental, but I didn’t have the scientific research to back up my position.

But for the past 18 years we have had overwhelming research that shows that a phonics-based approach to teaching reading is what works best.

If your child is struggling to read, find out if his or her teacher is teaching reading using a phonics-based approach.  If you are taking your child to a tutoring center to learn reading, make sure the center is using a phonics-based approach.  If you are teaching your child to read, use phonics.

What do I mean by phonics?

  • Identifying the sounds of English. Sounds, not ABC’s, come first.
  • Matching those sounds with symbols (letters) which represent those sounds
  • Merging those sounds and symbols to form words.
  • Identifying patterns among the symbols (for example, an “e” at the end of a one-syllable word) which change or influence the sounds letters make.

(The answers are true, false, true and false.)

Teaching VC and VCC words beginning with short vowels

Many beginning readers have trouble pronouncing two- and three-letter words which begin with a short vowel such as at and ink.  Children can pronounce “cat” yet not “at.”

Just as it is easier for children to learn consonant sounds, it seems easier for them to learn words which begin with consonants than to learn words which begin with vowels.

As a result, I teach CVC words first, including words with beginning and ending blends.  Then I teach VC or VCC words.  Many one-syllable short-vowel, words begin with a vowel and end with consonant blends.  I teach such CVCC words before I teach VCC words.

First I introduce two-letter words, some of which (in, on) children have already learned as sight words.  Other two-letter words include Al, am, an, at, ax,  Ed, ex if, it, ox, up and us.

One problem in teaching such words is that many of these words don’t have pictures which form a meaningful association for children.   How do you picture “us,” for example.  Two girls, arm in arm?  The student will say “girls” or “friends” or “sisters” but not “us.”  Another problem is that some of these words, such as “ex” and “ox” are not familiar to children.  When I can, I find pictures and make flash cards to help children associate words with pictures.  But that is hard.

After I teach two-letter VC words, I teach three-letter VCC words, including add, alp, ant, app, ask, asp, act, aft, and, egg, elk, elm, elf, end, egg, imp, ink, and off.  By teaching, I mean making words of letter tiles for children to read, and then asking them to make the words I say, again using letter tiles.  I also play BINGO using cards with these words on them.  I  make lists to read (boring but necessary).  We review these words often.  I write sentences using these words for children to read, sometimes in the form of a question which they must answer with a yes or no.  (Can an ant ask an egg to sit?  Can an elk add 2 + 2?  The sillier, the better.)

You can’t assume that because a child can read “cat,” she can also read “act.”  Tiny words beginning with short vowel sounds should be taught explicitly and should be reviewed until you are sure the child can sound them out properly.

What are letters?

Letters are visual representations (drawings) of sounds.  Nothing in an “a” inherently connects it with the sound we make when we say “a.”  “A” means the “a” sound only because we readers agree that it does, the way we agree that a green light means go or a “?” at the end of a sentence means to raise our voices to a higher pitch.

Child Recognizes the Letter T.

In English we have 26 letters, some of which are duplicates of the same sound.  For example, “c” and “k” can both indicate a “k” sound.  Some letters represent multiple sounds.  “S” can indicate both an “s” and a “z” sound.  And some letters, when paired with another letter, can represent a sound different from the sound either makes separately.  “Th” does not indicate a “t” plus an “h” sound, but a separate sound.

In some languages, each sound is represented by a different letter.  No letters stand for two or more sounds.  No letters, when paired, represent a new sound.  There is a one-to-one pairing of sound to illustration.  If only English were so simple!

The 42 distinct sounds in American English can by symbolized by more than 100 letters or pairs of letters (because some sounds, as the vowel sound in “cow”  have more than one way of being represented, such as “ow,” “ou,” “ew,” and “ough.”)

More than 100 letter combinations are far fewer to learn than are the thousands of word pictures Chinese people learn to be fluent in their languages.  But those 100+ letter combinations are more than the Cherokee used to represent 88 syllables in their language.

The fact that you are able to read this blog proves that the code of English—that is, the pairing of sounds with letter symbols—can be learned.  Four-year-olds who start the reading process can expect to be reading three-syllable words with accuracy by the time they are nine.  That’s five years to learn the most important skill we undertake in our education, a skill we will use almost daily for another 70, 80 or 90 years.

Hard—yes, but worth the effort.

Knowing ABC names isn’t important to beginning readers

When most children are four, they can say, or should I say sing, their ABC’s properly, except for the L-M-N-O part.

But can they pronounce the basic sounds associated with each of those letters?  I know they can’t.

For example, I ask what sound is “pictured” by “y.”  The child says “w” as in “why.”  Or I ask what sound is represented by “w.”  The child says “d” as in “double you.”  The children are giving me the sound of the letter’s name, not the sound represented by the letter.  This causes confusion when they try to pronounce CVC words.

Look at the disconnect between how letters are named and the basic sounds which those names represent.  In the case of vowels below, the basic sound is considered to be what has been called “short vowel sounds.”

ABC name    basic sound    pronunciation

A                      a                     ay

B                      b                     bee

C                      k                     see

D                      d                    dee

E                      e                     ee

F                      f                     eff

G                      g                    jee

H                      h                    aech

I                      i                      eye

J                      j                      jay

K                      k                     kay

L                      l                      el

M                     m                    em

N                      n                     en

O                      o                     oh

P                      p                      pee

Q                     kw                   kue

R                      r                      are

S                      s                      ess

T                      t                      tee

U                      u                     you

V                      v                      vee

W                     w                     double you

X                      x                      ex

Y                      y                      why

Z                      z                      zee

Of the basic sounds of our language, only eight are represented by letter names which begin with that sound.  (Sounds represented by more than one letter, such as “ow” and “th” are not shown here.)

This made me wonder how important knowing the names of the ABC’s  is compared to knowing the sounds those letter characters represent.  I have concluded that it is the sounds which are important, not the names or graphics we assign to those sounds.

To prove this, look at the sounds which children from other countries say when they see certain  letters.  When children in Germany see “v,” they pronounce the “f” sound in English.  Those same German children, when they see a “w,” pronounce it like a “v” sound in English.  When children in Russia see a “p,” they pronounce it like an “r” sound in English.

So the picture/character/graphic is arbitrary.  Someone long ago in England (or more likely, ancient Rome and Greece) assigned certain letter symbols to portray certain sounds.  But other persons in other parts of the world assigned the same letter symbols to portray different sounds.

Since I discovered this, I teach letter “sounds” differently.  When I work with beginning readers, I try not to use words like “A,” “B,” and “C” when I refer to letters.  Instead I say the sounds those letters represent.  I say “a,” “b,” and “k,” and I ask students to do the same.

If you are teaching your child beginning reading in English, I recommend that you focus on the sound, not on the name of the letter.  The sound is what children need to know in order to read, not the name we give to the letter representing that sound.

Teaching sounds, not letters, is where reading begins

The basic “code” of written English is sounds represented by letters.  Learning this code begins with learning to recognize the sounds of English.  Combining these sounds into two- or three-sound words is where forming words begins.  And this can be taught to children before they ever see a letter.

Because learning the code of written English is so important, learning to recognize its sounds should not be rushed.  A lifetime of reading, a career, the ability to support a family—so much depends on being able to read.

Kids need plenty of time and various kinds of interactions with sounds to learn to recognize sounds.  The younger the children, the shorter their attention spans and the more need for game-like ways to learn.

But the learning doesn’t begin with letters.  It begins with sounds.

I recommend you use several strategies to help your children identify sounds, working with your child one-on-one using manipulatives.  Why?

Your child wants nothing more than to interact with you. Putting down your cell phone and sitting by her side shows your child you treasure her.  And working with her on reading skills shows her how important you consider that knowledge to be.

Research shows that the more senses we use, the more likely we are to remember. If a child can touch manipulatives, hear you say sounds, say them herself, see objects when she says sounds and feel your warm hug when she learns, the learning will stick. Plus she will be relaxed and happy, in an emotional state which is open to learning.

Some of the strategies I recommend to teach tiny children how sounds form words are these.

  • Work on a few sounds at a time with objects around the house. If your son’s name is Bill, for example, start with the “b” sound. Put a ball in your son’s hand and say “b” (the sound, not the letter) as in ball.  Put a banana in his hands and say “b” as in banana.  Do the same for other consonant sounds and for all the vowel sounds, even sounds we represent by two letters.  You can say “oi” (the sound) as in oink, or “ch” (the sound) as in child.  You can start this activity when a child is two or three without ever showing the child a letter.

 

  • Find objects in picture books which begin with basic English language sounds. ABC books are good for this, but the goal should not be to say “A is for apple.”  Rather it is to focus on the sounds in words.  At first start with words which begin with a sound, but then move on to small words which include that sound in the middle of CVC words like “cat” and “bag.”

 

  • When the child recognizes a handful of consonant sounds and a vowel sound such as “a,” say the “a” sound and a consonant sound slowly, one after the other. Make sounds which form a word like “a” and “t” or “a” and “x.”  Repeat the sounds a little faster each time until the child can hear the sounds come together.  Usually the child will say the word, but if not, help her to hear how the sounds come together to form a word.

 

All these activities can be done prior to ever showing your child a letter.  And they can be done with all 42 sounds in English.  Identifying sounds and understanding how they come together to form words is the basis of reading.  Save the ABCs for a later time.

 

The younger the student, the shorter the reading lesson

Many four-year-olds can learn to read, but their lessons must be short and involve games and manipulatives to keep them engaged.

That’s what I have learned from many years of teaching little kids to read.  After about ten minutes, many little ones lose interest or become distracted.  Then it is time to stop or to move on to a different approach.

For example, last week I worked with a four-year-old girl who is learning to associate sounds with letters and to form her first CVC words.  The lesson was supposed to last 45 minutes, but after 30 minutes, she could no longer sit still.  Here is what we did in that half hour:

  • We began using letter tiles which she loves to touch. She would pull one of the 26 letters I had presorted and tell me the sound associated with that letter.  She knew all but two, “v” and “y,” so we set aside those two and every few minutes we reviewed them.
  • Next, we reviewed last week’s lesson, making CVC words with tiles the vowel “a,” words like “cat,” “man” and “bad.” For five minutes she participated, moving some of the letters herself, but then she noticed my necklace and wanted to wear it.  I let her, but from her attention was diverted.  After another few minutes we moved on.
  • I had created BINGO cards using CVC words, so her next task was to identify the word I said from among the nine words on her card. This worked for a few minutes, but then she became distracted by the BINGO markers themselves—pieces of plastic I had cut out—and she started making patterns with them.  Enough of that.
  • We returned to making words with the tiles to no avail. I cut the lesson short, grateful that she had worked for a half hour.

With a five-year-old last week, the situation was much the same.

child playing card memory game

  • I corrected the few pages of phonics homework she had done while she dumped a container of letter tiles and put them in ABC order, chatting all the time.
  • She told me the sounds associated with each letter, reminding me that “k” and “c” make the same sound. She gets mixed up with “g” and “j,” so we set them aside to review as the lesson progressed.  I pulled letters to make words with beginning blends, such as “smell” and “stun.”  She said the words but in a few minutes, she lost interest.
  • We moved on to a workbook in which she read tiny sentences using CVC and CCVC words.
  • Finally I dictated a few words with blends in them and she wrote them.
  • A half hour passed, the scheduled time for her lesson.  Now she got her reward:  time to build houses out of the letter tiles.

For all elementary school aged children I plan several parts to each lesson, but for the youngest, I need one activity for each seven to ten minutes to keep them engaged.

This Kid Can’t Read

Before you can help students to read, you need to know why they can’t read. An umbrella statement like, “This kid can’t read” is too broad to be helpful. You need to be more specific in identifying the problem. For example,

• Does she know how to read maps, charts, graphs and political cartoons?

• Can she decode CVC, CVCe and other one-syllable words?

• Can she segment and pronounce two-, three-, and four-syllable words?

• Does she struggle so much with decoding English sounds that she cannot take in meaning?

• Is her English vocabulary limited?

• Does she recognize prefixes, suffixes and root words?

• Does she apply punctuation when she reads?

• Does she read in a monotone without inflection or expression?

• Does she monitor her understanding as she reads, rereading whenever she realizes she doesn’t understand?

• Does she know how to use context clues?

• Can she predict what will happen next as she reads?

• Does she make inferences?

• Can she identify the main idea in a reading passage?

• Can she summarize a passage, paraphrasing?

• Can she distinguish between important details and less important details?

• Can she detect author bias?

• Does she know how to think deeply?

• Does she believe she can read?

Reading problems can be divided into dozens of smaller, specific problems. And those smaller problems can be tackled—and usually solved—by a skilled teacher using appropriate strategies.