We often take learning to read for granted, as though it is something that nearly every child will naturally do, like learning to walk. The truth is learning to read is not a natural process but one that takes solid instruction, both in school and at home.
Direct Explicit Instruction
Direct explicit instruction is nothing new in education. It emphasizes teacher-student interaction to teach skills. There are six steps generally recognized in direct explicit instruction:
1. Review and check previous work.
2. Present new material.
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3. Provide guided practice.
4. Provide feedback and corrections.
5. Provide independent practice.
6. Provide weekly and monthly reviews.
Essentially, direct explicit instruction involves a gradual release from teacher-directed instruction to independent practice. The more specific the learning objective, the more direct explicit instruction is recommended.
Phonological awareness is a broad set of skills that involves being able to break language down into discreet units: sentences into words, words into syllables, onsets from rimes, and syllables into sounds. Phonemic awareness is the specific skill of being able to break syllables into sounds. It is usually the last phonological skill to develop. It is important to note that phonological awareness is oral and auditory, as opposed to written. This oral and auditory awareness is a precursor to decoding the written word.
For most students, phonological awareness begins before formal schooling even starts, without any direct explicit instruction. Parents can help develop this awareness by:
Reading aloud to their children. Point out words that have the same onset (beginning sound) and rime (ending syllable). For example, “fox” and “fish” have the same onset, while “fox” and “box” have the same rime. Find examples of these patterns in everyday conversations.
Talking with their children. Point out rhyming and alliteration in everyday conversations with children.
Singing songs with their children. Sing nursery rhymes with your child and encourage silly variations, substituting some sounds for others. Practice clapping out the syllables in the songs.
For grade school students who still struggle with phonological awareness, systematic instruction is required. This instruction is direct and explicit. While there are a variety of strategies, interventions, and programs available, it is important that any instruction is research-based. The What Works Clearinghouse, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, is a good resource for effective phonological awareness instruction.
Sound-letter correspondence refers to a reader being able to associate certain sounds with certain letters. This is the instruction that takes emerging readers from phonological awareness to actually being able to decode the written word using phonics, a method of teaching people to read by correlating sounds with letters or groups of letters.
Sound-letter correspondence is greatest taught using direct explicit instruction. The following sequence is typically used to teach sound-letter correspondence:
a, m, t, p, o, n, c, d, u, s, g, h, i, f, b, l, e, r, w, k, x, v, y, z, j, q
Though it may seem strange to teach letters out of alphabetical order, this sequence teaches high-frequency letters first, allowing students to begin reading as soon as possible. Letters that are easily confused, such as “b” and “d”, are separated from each other in sequence. Short vowel sounds are taught before long vowel sounds.
Blended Reading and Segmented Spelling
Once students understand letter-sound correspondence, they are able to begin blending those sounds to decode words. Blending is often referred to as “sounding out” a word. For instance, given the word “bat”, the emerging reader will at first sound it out slowly, “bbbbaaaatttt”, and eventually will blend the sounds together to form the word “bat”.
Segmentation is the skill of splitting words up into their separate phonemes to help emergent readers spell words. Given the word “bat” orally, the student will separate the individual sounds into b/a/t. Knowing the letter that corresponds to each of these sounds, the student is able to spell the word correctly, “b-a-t”.
While phonics-based instruction is shown to be effective in teaching most students to read most words, there are situations that call for the use of sight words. Sight words are words that students should be able to pronounce within three seconds of seeing them in print.
There are two types of sight words. The first type includes words that are used frequently. Learning to recognize this type of word by sight allows readers to move quickly through text, saving energy for deciphering less frequently used words. Examples of these words include “and”, “the”, and “like”.
The second type of sight word does not follow typical phonetic rules, so they cannot be taught using phonics instruction. Some examples include “have”, “said”, and “women”.
Sight word instruction should complement phonics instruction, not replace it. Instruction should not last more than ten minutes at a time. Words should be introduced in isolation, but then reinforced in reading material. Students should only be exposed to a limited number of words (2-7) at any given time. The Dolch sight word list and the Fry sight word list are two well-established resources from which teachers can find sight words.
Handwriting also plays a surprisingly important role in reading instruction. Students who practice handwriting more tend to be better readers and spellers. Typing does not seem to have the same effect. It is hypothesized that writing words by hand while saying the words aloud activates brain circuits that promote literacy.
In a world that is increasingly digital, it is worth implementing often neglected handwriting practice. Having students write their spelling words or sight words may help them learn them more quickly.
Learning to read is not a process that just occurs naturally. Turning a child into a reader requires direct explicit instruction in phonological awareness, phonics, sight words, and handwriting.
Lindsay is a middle school principal and holds an MA in Educational Leadership.