Learning to read the right way

THE RIGHT BEGINNING

Reading is not a single skill.  It’s a whole set of skills and sub-skills, with decoding (sounding out words) and comprehension (understanding what the words mean) at the core. A good reading programme focuses on five components: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. In Upper KG the reading programme concentrates mainly on phonemic awareness. The other components are not ignored at this early stage, but fluency and comprehension can only be achieved when a child has secure phonological awareness.

Learning to read is like learning to walk, or talk.  We cannot rush the process and each child will move through the phases of reading development as and when he or she is ready.  We can categorise reading into stages. Zero to stage two are the ‘learning to read’ stages of development.  These are the stages where the child is doing just that. These stages cover UKG to the end of Standard III. The next stages are when children are ‘reading to learn.’ This is when children read on their own to expand their knowledge. Progression from one stage to another is dependent upon mastery of each previous stage. Each child will move through the stages when he/she is ready and not a moment before.

Reading programmes begin in KG and need to be completed at the end of Standard III.  When the child leaves Standard III he/she needs to be reading according to, or above, their chronological age. Good reading programmes bring the five components of reading together as skills that are built up grade by grade. To enable us to understand the set of skills and sub-skills needed for reading it is necessary to understand the sequences and terminology in teaching children to read.

Reading and sounds

Phonological awareness is about sounds. This is when a child knows the sounds of the letters and is able to match that sound to an object. For example they can match the letter ‘a’ to the picture of an apple; they can match the letter ‘c’ to the picture of a cat. Listening is the key to this skill and children must know that letters and sounds are linked. The child will learn to decode elements of words using phonics. They use phonics, syllabication and word parts. Language Arts lesson plans need to emphasise initial, medial and final sounds in single-syllable words.  They need to create and state a series of rhyming words, including consonant blends.

Rhyming words are an important part of learning to read.  Rhyme words with consonant blends, add, delete or change target sounds to change words. For example: change ‘get’ to ‘met’ or ‘sat’ to ‘cat.’ Blend two to four phonemes into recognisable words, for example: d - o - g = dog and r – i - ch = rich. The reading teacher shows children how to blend sounds into recognisable words.  At this level children learn to use consonant blends, compound words and contractions, root words and common word families.

The next stage of learning to read is that sounds become words. After phonemic awareness comes real phonics. Learning phonics includes all the teaching strategies and activities that bring a child to understand that letters become words when they are linked.  The child must understand that when letters are sounded out — c a t — they are decoding and blending sounds to form a word. Once a child can decode words — mainly consonant, vowel consonant words, — they then move towards structure. This includes learning ‘sight words’ which cannot be decoded and finally, putting words into sentences. Kindergarten programmes usually stop at single sentences to be read by the child. 

Reading paragraphs of more than one sentence usually start in Standard I. The meaning of words is stressed when the child is able to read one or two sentences. Assuming that the child can read the sentences, teachers will begin to stress word meaning at this stage. Reading vocabulary is now introduced.

Sight words

Sight words are commonly used words that readers should recognise instantly. Their recognition is important because sight words are frequently used in all reading text. Some estimates say that 50-75% of all words that children encounter are sight words. Sight words do not sound as they are spelled. Having a good knowledge of sight words gives the child a better chance to deal with more difficult and infrequent words without losing the sense of what is being read. Two lists that help educators and parents identify these words and give them the attention they deserve are: the Dolch List of Basic Sight Words and Fry’s Sight Words.

Choosing an appropriate method to teach sight words is crucial. There is the tried and tested method of flash cards; flash cards encourage learning through sight recognition. Using these cards continuously means that students pick up the most common sight words quickly. Make games with the sight word cards – matching games. Word boxes with the outline of the word.  Put the words to music – either spell the sight words to drum rhythms or encourage students to make songs about the words. Get an old telephone and get the children to dial their sight words.  These are some basic tips; there are many more to be found on the internet.

The vocabulary of a child increases daily through interaction with family and friends. The reading vocabulary guides children into word knowledge. A good reading programme will stress a variety of texts to build vocabulary. This will include a comprehensive ‘Word Wall.’ Once children can blend the sounds into words, read the words in a sentence and then know what the sentence means, they have achieved comprehension; the meaning is understood. This is the fifth component of reading and the desired result of elementary reading programmes. Reading is not defined as the ability to decode and call out words. A child needs to understand text, as comprehension equals a successful reader.

A good reading programme uses guided reading, to help students understand reading level appropriate literature.  The programme tests comprehension by asking children to respond to questions, make predictions and compare information.The reading programme exposes children to narrative and expository text, classic and contemporary literature, magazines, newspapers and online information. During lessons, children identify text that uses sequence or other logical order.  Teachers need to ask students to respond to ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ questions.  Children need to follow one-step written instruction and to use context to resolve ambiguities about word and sentence meanings.  While demonstrating reading skills, students confirm predictions about what will happen in the text by identifying key words.  The reading teacher will ask students to discuss central ideas of simple expository, or narrative passages.

To summarise the stages in reading:

Stage zero of learning to read is characterised by learning to recognise the alphabet, imitation reading, experimentation with letters and learning the sound associated with letters. This stage can be up to six years. 

Stage one of learning to read is at ages six to seven.  Children in this stage are beginning to utilise their knowledge of consonants and vowels, to blend them together to make simple words.  This ability is an integral part of beginning to read.  Some children take a long time to pass through this stage. Over time and with guidance, they eventually move to reading whole words.  Patience is the key when children move through Stage one.

At Stage two children have become good at reading and spelling and are ready to read without decoding everything. At this stage it helps to have children re-read books frequently, because this allows them to concentrate on meaning and also helps to build their fluency, while reading.

As children gain in confidence from the simple to the more complex, they enjoy the process of learning to read. It is no longer a chore. It becomes an exciting beginning to independent learning and choice. A child has to want to learn to read.  Right from the beginning of KG the listening component needs to be sown as a seed. Listening to stories and wanting to hear good stories is the real pathway to reading. Teachers need to keep reading to children right through school, to enable students to become competent readers themselves.

Please remember that a good school will employ competent teachers, who know how to teach reading. Children reading without meaning and reciting passages off by heart, like parrots, are not reading. A child becomes an independent learner through learning to read the correct way.

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