Learning to read

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How do children learn to read words?

As adults, we assume there are two routes to reading skill - decoding and sight words, however, children who can decode and recognise sight words are already successful readers. There are many necessary factors contributing to the acquisition of these skills that must already be in place for children to succesfully decode text.

The first step towards reading success is helping students tune into the sounds in words. This is not a instinctual act for children and requires explicit teaching of various concepts, including: rhyme, alliteration and body/coda or onset/rhyme blending. This can be done through singing songs, nursery rhymes, guessing games and silly sentences. The possibilities are endless.

Children also need to develop a sense of phoneme (phonemic/phonological)awareness. Phonemes are the individual sounds in words, and the awareness of this is an auditory skill, not visual. Phonics and phoneme awareness are different concepts. Conversations and shared reading are early ways to encourage this skill. Research shows that 3 elements are present in effective phonemic instruction: 1. explicitly teaching one phoneme at a time; 2. tasks that are designed to make each phoneme memorable; and 3. practice at identifying phonemes in spoken words.


This site has an excellent list of lesson plans for teaching phonemic awareness, as well as more information on teaching the 3 elements in more detail.

Once children have an knowledge of a handful of phonemes, and can identify sounds in isolation, they are ready to start blending these sounds orally, and in written form. In Australia, we use a program called "letter pack" to teach blending. This is called a "letterbox lesson" in the USA. The aim of blending is to produce an oral approximation of a word close enough for the child to access a word. Rhyming is a good precursor for blending skills. As with other concepts in reading instruction, children should not be asked to produce answers immediately. The first step is for children to identify an "odd man out" in a series of text. For example: "which word does not belong: cat, mat, sat, flip, hat?" then children can be prompted to produce answers by providing an initial sound. For example: "which would could come next: cat, mat, sat, h-a-a-a?". Once this is mastered, children might be asked to produce a rhyme.