Friday, April 4, 2008

Basic Literacy Support 3: Is Phonics all we need?

As a parent, one could be forgiven for being confused about the best way to teach young children to read. I've been studying early reading for 35+ years and while we've managed to learn lots of things about literacy and language from research, few new understandings have been gained about the best methods to teach literacy. Good teachers have always known what is required. Public debate tends to make pretty simple stuff complicated. The debate seems to end up being distilled into two major competing claims - it's either about phonics (decoding words) or whole language (reading 'real' stories).

One approach stresses the learning of reading from part to whole (first learn sounds, then words then read longer texts). The other (often referred to as Whole Language) stresses the need for children to encounter language in the form of stories or non-fiction, and assumes that decoding and other language skills are learned as children read. Few teachers actually believe either of these extreme views, but much public debate is stimulated by a minority of teachers, academics, doctors, psychologists, businessmen, and parents who do.

In this post I want to do just two things:

Stress what young readers need to experience if they are to learn to read successfully.
Outline some basics about phonics.

1. What do young children need to experience to learn to read?

First, you need to understand that children first begin the process of learning to read from birth. The child who arrives at school aged five ready to take off in reading has usually experienced many things. They've had parents and caregivers who have:

* spoken to them, listened to them, asked them questions, and answered their questions - from birth children should experience almost constant immersion in language;
* read to them, shown them what it is to write, and generally allowed their child to see literacy demonstrated in varied forms;
* actively tried to get their child to look at print and make sense of it - at first this might have involved pointing to symbols (e.g. the McDonalds logo "M"), encouraging them to recognise the names of TV shows from the symbols (e.g. ABC Kids) and so on. In such households children have been introduced to the fact that language can be represented by symbols as well as the spoken word;
* taught them songs, rhymes, chants, limericks, jokes (e.g. Knock, knock...). This trains memory and teaches key aspects of language (rhythm, intonation, phrasing etc);
* provided them with varied experiences in which language has been a vital and integral part;
* taught letter names, numbers and perhaps some sounds;
* encouraged them to 'read along' with books, predicting from the pictures, looking for key details and events from the pictures, looking at publishing devices such as enlarged letters, coloured print to provide impact, thought balloons etc;
* encouraged them to predict repetitive language patterns in some picture books - "But where is the Green sheep?";
* drawn their attention to print everywhere in their environment.

Children who have experienced the above find reading easier when they get to school. Children who haven't experienced this will struggle in comparison.

2. How do I help my child to be better at decoding (phonics)?

The ability to decode words is obviously a critical part of reading. How is this learned? Is there only one way? Decoding is what most people know as phonics - the ability to sound out words. Knowing that letters represent sounds and when put together that these make words. My website has a detailed overview of common approaches to phonics for teachers and interested parents, but below I've provide a basic overview on how to help your child.

You can begin some simple phonics and whole word recognition from about age 4. This should happen naturally if you’ve been doing all of the things I talk about above. Some children will be ready earlier than others but once they reach 5 you should more systematically focus on print. But be careful, if you have your child sitting down to ‘do school’ as a preschooler, then you run the risk that you might make reading more difficult and take all the joy out of it (with obvious negative long-term impact). Experiencing the joy of books and language is still the main task of any parent. But here’s a sequence that can be used for phonics:

a) Teach some consonants (e.g. b, t, c, s, g, s, m, f, l) – try to make it fun. Use the letter name as well as the sound. “Look, that’s a ‘b’.” “Can you see the ‘r’ in Rebecca?”.

While you’re pointing out letters teach a few whole words. For example, their name, mum, dad, kids (as in ABC Kids), STOP etc.

Point to letters, numbers and words as you read things and also write them down with them and encourage them to write as well.

b) Introduce the vowels (a, e, i, o, u) – while you can point to the vowels separately these are better introduced as part of words or in combination with consonants. “That says ‘u’ in mum”. “Let’s look for some ‘at’ words on this page”. “Let’s write some ‘at’ words together.” You might even sound out special words in stories. For example, in books that use sound words you should say them and point to them. “Mr McGee is saying OWWWW and OOOOO”. “Look, that says BANG”.

c) Point out other print conventions – as your child begins to learn more about written language he/she will have lots of questions that you should try to answer. As well, you might point out punctuation, the difference between upper and lower case letters. You might label their drawings with words they give you to describe their creations. Read the words back to them and encourage them to likewise.

d) Play games that use words, sounds and numbers – Word BINGO and I Spy are simple examples but there are many commercial examples. Many games can make car trips seem shorter and act as a catalyst for families doing things togethers (including brothers and sisters).

e) Other sounds and words – your child’s responsiveness to reading will determine how much more that you will need to do before school, but in the first two years of school most children should learn all the sounds commonly encountered in written language. If you want a more detailed and comprehensive overview you can visit my website for more information.


HURST FIRST Let's Read! said...

Dr. Cairney,

My work with children shows that after a parent does all or most of the activities you suggest, or even some actually, they can then begin formally teaching sight words in the form of games. We start with the words cat, I, see, red, yellow, and a. We have developed multiple ways to play games with these words. In addition we casually (for 30 seconds at a sitting) show the child the letters A and a with a picture of an apple on the back. The adult says the short sound of a as this is shown to the child. Thus reading play has begun.

I call this formal teaching of reading. We progress slowly, using sight words more than phonics in the beginning and insisting the play time is short and fun. By the 20th week after 60 or 70 words are known we introduce "sounding out." The kids are very ready for this abstract skill and "get it". Many of them already think of themselves as readers. All of them know by know that reading is fun.

We begin this process with three and four year olds. We also move just this slowly and playfully when we get First and Second Graders who are struggling with reading. It works for them just as effectively as it works for our little ones.

This is such exciting work. What more can I say?

Jodi Heaton Hurst

garon said...

hi, I'm mayelin Lopez;

Sorry about my English writing i'm not good at it.I'm a new mom of a 15 months old baby boy, and i'm totaly lost about teaching hem. He love books, hes very curious about his surrounding and he loooooooove to play. I start teaching hem phonics and he looks interested, but some times he seen frustrated. It's to soon for it? How can i build any type of progran for hem at home and during vacation.

In the other hand i'm dominican so most of the time i speak to hem in my native language (spanish), and he watch tv and read in English, i translate, but i feel presure tha people tell me how to teach hem or tha he should be a head of his age. My boy steel dosn't walk by hemself, but hes a very helthy boy. Any advice.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Garon,

Thank you for your comment and questions (glad I don't have to respond in Spanish!). It sounds like you are doing some very good things with your child. However, I wouldn't try to teach your son phonics in any formal sense yet (wait till he is at least 3-4 years old). If he shows an interest earlier, then of course respond to his interest. But at this stage you need to concentrate on rich language stimulation, lots of stories (told and read), songs, dance and rhymes. Also concentrate on free and guided play - give him lots of experiences that will require him to use language. Also encourage his creativity. By all means give him paper and ask him to write, but at this stage drawing and controlled scribble is all that most children will be capable of. Anyway, thanks for your questions.

Please read some of the other blog posts as well on topics like play, literature, language etc.

Best wishes,