Category Archives: methods of teaching reading

Decoding or encoding to learn to read?

So often when people talk about reading instruction, they talk about “decoding.”  By “decoding” they mean looking at a written word, such as “cat,” pronouncing each letter sound or digraph, and putting those letter sounds together to pronounce the whole word, with or without meaning.  I teach many children who can decode words correctly, but who have no idea what those words mean.

This decoding process starts with a visual image of a word.  But as brain research teaches us, a better way to start the process of reading is with sounds.  To start with sounds, though, means to start not with decoding but with encoding.  “Encoding” means starting with sounds and joining them together to form words.

How would we teach reading by encoding?  We might show a picture of a cat.  Children would say, “cat.”  They would think about what a cat is. Then students would sound out the word “cat,” listening for and then saying the separate sounds in the word–“c,” “a,” “t.”

With decoding, students break apart an already written word.  With encoding, students construct a word orally from a spoken or pictured word.  With decoding, students start the reading process by using the visual center of the brain, the right hemisphere.  With encoding, students start the reading process with the listening and speaking parts of the brain, the left hemisphere.

What difference does it make?  Students who encode start the reading process with sounds.  As toddlers, we learn words—their pronunciation and their meaning—through listening and repeating the sounds we hear.  If those words are nouns, we usually see an image of the word as well.  Later, when we see a cat or talk about a cat, we remember the image, how the word was pronounced and how we pronounced the word.  We don’t remember letters because we didn’t learn “cat” using an alphabet.  “Cat” was not originally stored in our brains in alphabetic form but rather in sound-picture associations.

With encoding, after the student has practiced weeks or months of oral sounding out of words, a teacher would introduce the alphabet a few letters at a time, and immediately help students construct words they know using sounds they already know.  With encoding, the child creates meaningful words.

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.

When two letters equal one sound: teaching digraphs

mother works with child reading story bookWhen children learn to read using a phonics method, they start by learning that each sound has a one-to-one relationship with a letter.  This makes reading seem logical to little children.  See a B and say “b.”  As teachers we don’t muddy beginning readers’ thinking by telling new readers that some letters mean more than one sound or that some letters, when paired with other letters, make totally different sounds or that some sounds can be represented by multiple groupings of letters.  We save that for later, after children have “mastered” the concept of CVC words and blends.

But eventually children learn that written English is not as logical as it seems at first.  Most advanced phonics instruction begins by teaching children consonant digraphs, two letters which, when paired, represent a sound that neither of the individual letters represents.  The pairs which are taught first usually include ck, qu, sh, ch, and th.

If you find that children balk at learning this part of the “code,” this is normal.  A four- or five-year-old’s understanding of logic is not the same as an adult’s.  One-to-one relationships between sounds and letters makes sense to little children, but one-to-two relationships do not.

I recommend you start with one digraph per lesson.  Just like beginning-of-word blends are easier for children to learn than end-of-word blends, beginning-of-word digraphs are too.  The exception is “-ck.”  I  teach that while I am teaching CVC words containing blends.

But for other digraphs, I usually start with “sh” because there are lots of “sh” one syllable, short-vowel words such as shag, shed, shin, shot, and shut.  I try to make learning “sh” at the beginning of words a game, using letter tiles and BINGO cards with “sh” words.

After a student becomes comfortable pronouncing “sh” at the beginning of words, I move on to another beginning-of-word digraph.  The order isn’t important, but it is important that you constantly review the previously learned digraphs as you move along.  For children who find remembering difficult, it is especially important to advance slowly, spending a large part of each lesson reviewing.

When the student is reasonably secure with pronouncing these digraphs at the beginnings of words, I might tackle teaching how to pronounce digraphs at the ends of words, one at a time.  Or I might delay this kind of instruction, depending on how difficult it was for the student to learn the beginning of word digraphs.

Teaching silent E

Phonics instruction guides vary as to when to teach silent “e.”  Some suggest teaching it before teaching digraphs starting or ending one-syllable, short-vowel words.  Others suggest teaching silent “e” after teaching digraphs.

My best advice is that it depends on the student.  I have spent months teaching CVC words to a student, and thinking she had “mastered” that concept, started teaching silent “e.”  But when we reviewed CVC words at the end of the lesson, she pronounced all the CVC words as if  they were silent “e” words.

Yet I have taught another student who understood the silent “e” concept by the end of our first lesson on that concept. She could accurately go back and forth from CVC words to silent “e” words.  Some students recognize silent “e” patterns in a single lesson.  Some students take months.

I use letter tiles to write a CVC word like “cat” and beside it to write the silent “e” word “cate.”  I explain that the “e” is needed for spelling and to signal that the previous vowel is pronounced like its name.  I start with “a” vowel word pairs:  ban, bane; fat, fate; hat; hate; mad, made, etc.  If the child catches on, I move on to other vowels.  But if the child cannot go quickly back and forth from CVC words to CVCe words, I slow down and focus on one vowel, and one or two consonants after that vowel, such as “t” and “d” as in mat, mate; Nat, Nate; mad, made, and bad, bade.

As always with young children, I try to break up a half hour lesson with game-like activities to keep them motivated.  Even the quickest to catch on prefer to learn using games.

Should you take care to use only real words?  I use non-words all the time, but after the student has pronounced a non-word correctly, I mention that there is no such word.  This offers more pair combinations, especially for the vowels “e” and “u” for which there are not many silent “e” words.