For our child who has not yet learned to read they do not see words, spaces and punctuation that represent the spoken language they are now quite skilled at understanding.
How will they make the link between print and spoken language? How will they learn to read?
Research now tells us that it doesn’t matter how long a child stares at a printed page, for most kids, without systematic instruction they are unlikely to become proficient readers. According to the National Reading Panel, only about 5% of children learn to read effortlessly. About 60% of children find early reading difficult, and 20-30% of those children will really struggle.
Learning to talk is easy compared to learning to read. We just need to be dumped into a verbal world and we will pick up on the sounds of spoken language. Connecting these sounds to printed text (written letters and words) more difficult and the ‘code’ almost always needs to be taught to us.
Our pre-literate child approaches the task of learning to read with a large spoken vocabulary (5000 to 6000 words). The goal is then to start identifying the written form of these words and all other words our child is continually adding to their vocabulary. Developmentally, spoken language is acquired and written language is grafted on to this already established sound based (phonological) system.
Words can be broken down to smaller units
In the largest, most comprehensive evidence-based review ever conducted of research on how children learn to read, the National Reading Panel determined that effective reading instruction includes a number of things. First our child must learn that the words they hear and speak can be broken down in to smaller sound units. For example, ‘BIG’ can become /b/ /i/ /g/. Further instruction will teach them that ‘BIG’ can become ‘PIG’ if we replace the /b/ with a /p/ or BIT if we replace the /g/ with a /t/. Once our child develops this ability they are said to be phonemically aware.
Sounds and Letter groups
The next challenge is understanding that each of the sounds in our language are represented in print by a letter or a group of letters. For example, they become aware that the letter M makes the /m/ sound. This is known as the alphabetic code.
Once they have mastered a few of the letter sound correspondences they can start to have a go at spelling spoken words and decoding written words. Being able to break apart and manipulate the sounds in words and understanding that sounds are represented by letters of the alphabet which can be blended together to form words allows children to become independent readers. They can have a go at reading words they have never seen before or attempt to spell words they have never heard before.
As you know though the English language is not a completely phonetic language and some sounds can be represented by more than one letter and some letters represent more than one sound. There will be words that children will need to learn by heart or sight, such as yacht which cannot be correctly sounded out. However, there are either phonics or spelling rules that govern about 75% of our language.
After basic sound/symbol phonics teaching occurs, more advanced coding needs to be taught (For example, the sound /ik/ will be spelled “ick” as in trick, thick, flick, sick, Rick, brick as long as it is a one syllable word. If it is at the end of the second syllable or more, it is spelled “ic” as in panic, magic, fantastic, Titanic).
Once our child has developed phonemic awareness, developed decoding abilities and learned the alphabetic code they then need to practice what they have learned by reading aloud with guidance and feedback. This is known as guided oral reading.
Of course the main goal of reading is not to decode words but to rather take meaning from something we read. To comprehend the message within the printed content. To master this skill our child needs to apply reading comprehension strategies to guide and improve their reading comprehension.
So when do you start this process with your children?
The maternal health nurses drum in to us that we should be reading to our kids from birth. This helps to develop their spoken vocabulary and to teach our children many of the conventions of reading such as moving from left to right across the page.
Research has found that pre-schoolers appear to gain more from phonemic awareness intervention than students already attending school. Pre-school appears the ideal time to start introducing pre-literacy skills.
Fun activities to help with reading
Phonemic Awareness activities can easily be incorporated in to daily life for your pre-schooler. Systematic synthetic programs are often accused of being boring, repetitive, drill activities but it doesn’t need to be the case.
Your pre-schooler is unlikely to be aware that words are made up of smaller sounds. Start to point this out to them. As you are pouring their milk point out ‘milk’ starts with the /m/ sound. Point out other words that start with the /m/ sound like ‘Mum’, ‘mug’, and ‘mop’. As your child grasps the idea they may be able to suggest some words that start with the target sound. Try to focus on one sound for a day or two before introducing another sound.
Do a treasure hunt for items in the house that start with a particular sound like ‘socks’, ‘spoon’, ‘soap’, ‘scissors’. Build up to having your child identify the common starting sound of a group of objects like a fork, flag, football.
Clapping out the syllables in names and words is another activity that introduces children to the sound structure of our language. Have your child clap out the syllables in their name and build up to clapping out and counting the sounds in their name.
Blending and Segmenting sounds are the most important phonemic awareness tasks. Ask your child to say ‘aeroplane’ without saying ‘plane’ – ‘aero’. This type of activity starts to teach them that words can be segmented into smaller units. A harder task would be when you only delete one sound – say ‘tiger’ without the /r/ – ‘tige’. Have your child sound out words – CAT becomes /C/ /A/ /T/. Blending is the opposite – what word do the sounds /C/ /A/ /T/ make. Once your child becomes aware that spoken words can be broken down into sounds start linking those sounds to the printed letter or letters they represent.
While these activities do not quite fit the full recommendations of the National Reading Panel, in place of a good synthetic systematic literacy program at pre-school or school, they would be a good place to start. Playing around with the sounds of language like this will help your child become phonemically aware and get them off to a great start in their journey to become literate.
Most importantly, have fun with it. Making it a fun activity will encourage your child to want to continue their development and engagement with the wonderful books and stories that will open their worlds.