Learning through phonics is the best way to learn to read

If a child is having trouble reading, what is the most likely cause?

  • Reliance on pictures for meaning?
  • Guessing?
  • Weak word recognition skills?
  • Reliance on context word clues?

Child sitting with legs outstretched, forming the letter LWeak word recognition skills is the mostly likely cause, and because of that, students guess at words or search for clues from pictures and other words.

Weak word recognition skills means an inability to sound out the letters which form words.  If a child comes upon a new word—for example, “trek”—and the child cannot sound out the individual letters, the child cannot read the word.

Since 2000 we have known that the most effective way to teach reading is through a system of associating sounds with letters and combining those letters to form words—in other words, a phonics-based approach.  A National Reading Panel authorized and funded by Congress assessed scientific research on reading.  The Panel’s goal was to determine the most efficient way children learn to read.  The Panel concluded in 2000 that to read well, children should associate sounds of English (phonemes) with letters or letter pairs and to combine the letter-sounds into words.

Child with arms stretched out at his sides, forming the letter T.The word “it,” for example, has two sounds, each of which is associated with a letter.  The word “shop” has three sounds with “sh” corresponding to a single sound.

By deconstructing words into their basic sounds, children learn to sound out words.  Without guessing, without context clues, without pictures, children can figure out how to read words.  Even though there are some words which defy this sounding-out system (words like “one” and “two”), the vast majority of words in English can be sounded out.

The problem is, even though we know what works best, teachers are still asking children to guess at words, to look at pictures to figure out what words mean, to read other words nearby and use those context clues to figure out words, and to memorize the look of a word.  In other words, some teachers are not teaching phonics as the primary way to learn to read.  They are relying on methods which research shows do not work as well as phonics.

When I went to first grade, I was taught to read using a memorization approach.  The first page of my first reader had the word ”look” under a picture.  The next page had the words “Oh, look” with a different picture.  The next page had “See, see, see” with another picture.  It wasn’t until fourth grade that my teacher, Sister James Bernard, CSJ, offered lesson after lesson on phonics.  What a revelation!

If your child hasn’t learned phonics, teach him or her.  If your child is guessing at words, make him sound out each letter or each syllable.  No guessing allowed!  This is the surest way to create a strong reader.

Three cueing—a popular reading theory proven wrong by research

For almost twenty years we have known that the best way to teach children to read is by focusing on phonics—pairing the sounds of English with one or more letters and then joining those sounds to form words.

But in the US from 1967 to the beginning of the 21st century, another method was thought to be better, a method known as three cueing.  It was proposed by Ken Goodman, a university professor and noted reading expert, who believed that readers predict what words mean using three cues:

  • cues from the letters themselves;
  • cues from the part of speech the word could be;
  • and contextual cues from pictures, a sentence, or a paragraph.

Goodman said we read by guessing at words based on the three cues.  His ideas replaced the two reading methods then in use:  memorizing whole words as in the Dick and Jane books from the 1930s (“Oh look.  See Spot.”) and using phonics to decipher words (as popularized in the 200-year-old McGuffey Readers series).

Using the three cueing method, teachers would encourage students reading a given passage to think of a word that made sense —like “horse”—when students couldn’t figure out a word.  Teachers would encourage students to look at the letters.  Do they look like “horse”?  Do the letters sound like “horse”?

A similar method that some teachers might be more familiar with is the “MSV” reading method.  Similar to three cueing, MSV is a system developed by Marie Clay of New Zealand.  The “M” means figuring out meaning, often from contextual clues; the “S” means sentence structure, or figuring out what part of speech is needed in a particular sentence; and the V means visual information, or the look of the letters in the unknown word.

Goodman’s approach became known as “whole language” and became popular in the US.  Clay’s approach led to the Reading Recovery program, a first grade reading intervention program started in New Zealand and now found all over the English-speaking world, including in the US.

But eventually research proved that both of these approaches were not as effective as phonics.  More about that in our next blog.

 

Don’t let your child guess at words

A reader of my past blog wrote about a first grader who did well in reading.  But by second grade she was no longer doing well.  Why?

Several reasons could account for this change, but the most likely is that the second grade teacher is not teaching phonics.

  • Perhaps the second grade teacher is not aware of research showing that a phonics-based reading program is the most successful.
  • Perhaps the second grade teacher attended a teacher training college which did not emphasize any one approach, treating all approaches–phonics, memorizing words, guessing–the same.  Research shows phonics is clearly better.
  • Perhaps the student switched schools or school districts, and went from a phonics-based curriculum in first grade to a second-grade curriculum which does not focus on phonics.
  • Perhaps the child is going through trauma at home which is showing itself in poorer academic achievement.

If your child is in first or second grade and is struggling to read, or is guessing at a large number of words, your child is unlikely to be a strong reader in the future unless you intervene now.  What can you do to change this situation?

  • Talk to your child’s teacher and find out how she is teaching reading.  Ask if she is primarily using a phonics-based approach.  If she is, then ask her what else the school can do to help your child do better.  Is there a reading specialist who can work with your child?  Are there tutors (paid or volunteer) who work with individual students?
  • If the teacher is not using a phonics-based approach, you can ask that your child be switched to the classroom of a teacher who is using such an approach.  If that is impossible, you can hire a private tutor, or become the tutor of your child.  Or if all else fails, you can move your child to a school which does use a phonics-based approach.

Is it that important?  Yes.  The most necessary academic skill is reading.  If a child is a poor reader, she will stumble through school and life.  Many well-paying career doors will be closed to her.

Do all that you can to ensure that your youngster learn reading by sounding out letters and by blending the letter sounds together to form words.

 

Teach a child to decode words, not to guess

One of the worst things a parent or a teacher can tell a child is to guess when trying to read a word.  This “guessing” can take many forms.

  • Look at the pictures. What word makes sense?
  • The word begins with a “c.” Now what word beginning with a letter “c” would work here?
  • Yes, it’s a big word. But you can figure out the first part, “con.”  So what words do you know that begin with “con”?  What one of those works here?

All of these guessing strategies set the reader up for failure.  Sooner or later there won’t be any pictures to give visual hints.  Sooner or later the child will know many “c” words, too many to guess about them all.  Sooner or later the child will encounter two- and three- and four-syllable words which make no sense in the context of the reading passage.

Instead, what a teacher should do is to teach the phonics code.  Teach that sounds are represented by letters.  Teach that letters combine to form words.  This is the surest strategy to create confident readers.

If your child is sounding out the first letter of words and then guessing at the rest, your child is probably going to be a poor reader.  Go back to teaching him or her phonics so your child has a systematic approach to figuring out words.  Give your child the gift of confident reading and a better future.

At a loss for words

One of the best radio reports I’ve ever heard on what is wrong with reading instruction in American schools is available at the following website:  https://www.apmreports.org/story/2019/08/22/whats-wrong-how-schools-teach-reading.  It will take 52 and a half minutes for you to listen to it, but if you are a reading teacher or a parent of a child learning to read or struggling to read, it is well worth your time.

Or you can read the report at the same website.

“At a loss for words” produced by Emily Hanford describes the correct way to teach reading—the way backed by research.  That way is to teach children that sounds correspond to letters, and that letters when combined, form words.

But despite almost 20 years of research endorsing a sound / letter correspondence, many teachers with the backing of their school districts and teacher education programs teach reading in ways proven not to work, such as memorizing whole words, using pictures as clues, skipping words, and thinking of an appropriate word that begins with the same letter as an unknown word.

In future blogs I will discuss aspects of this excellent radio report.  But for now I recommend you listen to it or read it.

Reading scores are down in American public schools

The just released results of tests that fourth and eighth grader public school students take every other year show that

  • The average eighth grade reading score declined in 31 states, compared to scores from 2017.
  • The lowest performing students who took the test slipped more than better performing students, though better performing students also slipped.
  • Black, white, Hispanic and Native American students showed lower scores while Asian scores remained unchanged.
  • For fourth graders, 17 states showed lower reading scores in 2019 compared to 2017.

The tests, officially called The National Assessment of Educational Progress, are sometimes called “the nation’s report card.” They are taken by representative groups of students from around the US.

Should you hire a tutor to help your child to read?

Under these circumstances, I recommend hiring a reading tutor:

  • You, the parent, are not a native English speaker. Even though you can read and speak English well, you want your child exposed to a wider variety of words or better grammar than you know.  You want your child to pattern a native speaker of English.
  • You, the parent, are not a native English speaker. You are embarrassed by your spoken English.  You cannot answer your elementary school-aged child’s questions about words, story meaning and grammar.
  • You, the parent, are not a native English speaker. You want someone immersed in the culture to explain idioms or allusions.
  • You are not well-educated and your child is surpassing your knowledge of English. You can no longer give your child the support you want to give.
  • Your child has learning problems. You have tried to help, but your child is not making progress.
  • You suspect your child’s teacher or school is not good, and you want to supplement the instruction your child is receiving.
  • Your child is stubborn and out-of-control. If the child were more pliant, you could probably offer the needed help, but the child’s history suggests an outsider might be a better match.
  • You know how to help, but you have no time. It’s easier to find the money to pay a tutor than it is to find the time to work with your child.
  • By the middle of first grade (or sooner), your child can barely read.
  • Your child is hyperactive and needs one-on-one instruction in order to pay attention.

I have tutored students in reading and writing for more than 20 years.  I believe most kids can benefit from tutoring, but most kids don’t need tutors.