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Exploring the Science of Reading Acquisition in Children

The discussion is ongoing, but the evidence is clear: Teaching systematic phonics is the most effective method for ensuring that children learn how to read.

For nearly 100 years, there has been a debate among researchers about the reading process, particularly when it comes to how young children first learn to understand words on a page.

One perspective argues that reading is akin to learning to speak and that children will naturally learn to read if exposed to a variety of good books. This theory suggests that with enough exposure to language and literature, children will develop the ability to read on their own, just as they develop the ability to speak on their own. The idea is that if teachers and parents surround children with good books, they will pick up reading in the same way that they pick up speaking.

On the other hand, another theory posits that reading is a series of educated guesses based on context. This theory suggests that children should be taught specific strategies to help them make these guesses, such as recognizing patterns in words, understanding the meaning of new words based on their context, and so on. This theory suggests that children will learn to read faster and more effectively if they are explicitly taught these guessing strategies.

However, research has proven that reading is not a natural process, rather it is a code that requires systematic instruction in phonics to effectively learn and read words. Written language is a complex system of symbols and sounds, and children need to be taught how to translate these symbols into sounds in order to understand what they're reading. Research has shown that the most effective way to teach children to read is through systematic phonics instruction, which involves teaching children the connections between letters and sounds and helping them to apply this knowledge to decoding new words. This approach is known as systematic phonics instruction and has been proven to be the most reliable way to teach children how to read. So, it's not about the guessing game or just exposing children to literature, it's about teaching them the code of written language through systematic phonics instruction, which is the key to success in reading.

Teaching reading involves more than just teaching phonics. It requires children to understand and make sense of written text. They must be able to connect sounds in spoken language with written letters in order to read words. They must have a strong background and vocabulary knowledge to comprehend the meaning of the words they read. In addition, children must be able to quickly recognize most words and read connected text with ease, paying attention to grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure.

Don’t children learn to read the way they learn to speak?

Infants learn to speak by listening to and repeating sounds made by adults and linking them to meanings. They do not consciously distinguish individual sound units (called phonemes) when hearing spoken language. Research suggests that infants learn through a combination of probability and experience, connecting sounds and meanings through repeated exposure. Within the first two years, typically developing toddlers’ brains focus on the most common sounds in their native languages and connect those sounds to meaning. A child develops understanding of speech through exposure to language and opportunities to practice the “serve and return” patterns of conversation, even without explicit instruction. However, this process of natural language acquisition does not apply to reading. The way in which children learn to connect oral and written language depends on the specific language they are learning to read.

In alphabetic languages like English or French, letters are used to represent the sounds that make up spoken words. To read these languages, children must learn how written letters correspond to spoken sounds, identify patterns of letter sounds as words, and match those words to their corresponding meanings. This is different from languages like Chinese which use a tonal spoken language and convey meaning through small variations in stress or pitch. In Chinese, the writing system is a combination of logographic symbols (directly corresponding to a word or concept) and symbols that represent sound, making it impossible to "sound out" unfamiliar words character by character.

What is systematic, explicit phonics instruction, and why is it important?

Associating written letters with spoken sounds is not something that comes naturally to most children. While some may be able to make these connections on their own, many do not. Studies conducted in 1989-90 by Brian Byrne and Ruth Fielding-Barnsley demonstrate this concept well. In these studies, researchers taught young children between the ages of 3 and 5 to read whole words aloud, such as "fat" and "bat", without prior knowledge of their letter names.

The researchers conducted an experiment to see if the children were able to apply their knowledge of reading to new words. They presented the word "fun" and asked the children to identify if it was "fun" or "bun." However, most of the students were unable to do this. But when the children were taught how to associate certain letters with specific sounds and to segment words to identify these letters and sounds, they were able to perform the task much better. Studies in neuroscience have also supported these findings, showing that people who are taught to link symbols with sounds have greater long-term success in learning to read new words in an unfamiliar language than those who try to memorize words as a whole. Brain scans have revealed that the two teaching methods activate different regions of the brain, with direct link to meaning allowing for quicker initial recall but less accuracy, while sound-to-meaning approach leads to faster and more accurate reading aloud, better recall of word meanings, and better transfer of knowledge to new words.

Extensive research has established that teaching phonics explicitly is beneficial for young readers, particularly those who have difficulty reading. This is because small advantages or disadvantages at the beginning of learning to read can have a significant impact over time. This phenomenon, known as the "Matthew Effect in Reading," was first described by reading expert Keith Stanovich in 1986. He explained that a combination of poor decoding skills, lack of practice, and challenging materials results in unenjoyable early reading experiences that lead to less engagement in reading-related activities. This lack of exposure and practice for struggling readers delays the development of automaticity and speed in word recognition, which in turn diverts cognitive resources away from comprehension, hinders the ability to read for meaning, leads to more negative reading experiences and less practice with active cognitive involvement.

My reading curriculum includes letter-sound instruction. Am I providing enough phonics?

Research has shown that explicit instruction in phonics, especially for struggling readers, can have a significant impact on reading ability.

However, not all phonics instruction is equally effective. The most successful programs are systematic and follow a specific, ordered progression of letter-sound correspondences. These programs teach all letter-sound connections, not just the ones that students struggle with, and are explicit in their instruction, rather than relying on students to figure it out on their own. Studies have shown that this type of instruction leads to the greatest improvement in reading accuracy among young students. Additionally, systematic phonics instruction has been found to be effective for students with disabilities and English language learners, as well as students from all socio-economic backgrounds. However, research on the long-term effects of phonics instruction is less clear, with studies showing that while it may improve reading comprehension immediately, the effects may fade over time.

Some of my students didn’t need phonics instruction to learn to read. Why are you saying that all kids benefit?

Not all children learn to read through explicit instruction, and some children may be able to decode words by recognizing patterns in the books or print they see around them. These children, who may have a condition called hyperlexia, may have gaps in their knowledge of spelling patterns or words that they haven’t encountered yet, and a systematic phonics program can still benefit them. However, it's important to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of individual students, and if a student can demonstrate mastery of a sound, they should move on to the next one. Additionally, it's important to note that some children may look like they are decoding when they are actually guessing based on illustrations or context.

Can cueing strategies help students to read?

In many early reading classrooms, students are taught to identify words by guessing with the help of context clues. The Goodmans, Ken and Yetta, of the University of Arizona, developed the "three-cueing system", which is based on common errors (or "miscues") when students read aloud. Ken Goodman referred to reading development as a "psycholinguistic guessing game," and cueing systems teach students to guess at a new word by using a combination of meaning, structure, and visual cues. These types of systems are commonly used in whole-language programs, as well as in "balanced literacy" programs that incorporate phonics instruction. However, research has not shown any benefits from using cueing systems, and studies in cognitive and neuroscience have found that guessing is a less efficient way to identify new words and is a characteristic of struggling readers rather than proficient readers. Skilled readers, on the other hand, use sounding out new words to decode them.

Balanced literacy programs that incorporate both phonics and cueing instruction have been shown to be less effective for children in developing phonics skills as it distracts them from paying attention to the sounds of the letters.

Can you provide information on how to effectively teach phonics instruction, including the necessary content and recommended sequence according to research?

The process of becoming a skilled reader typically follows a specific path. Research has shown that certain skills, such as phonological awareness, letter-sound correspondences, and vocabulary, are important for developing decoding ability. Before starting kindergarten, children usually have some early phonological awareness, which helps them to rhyme, break down multi-syllable words, and recognize alliteration. They then learn that certain combinations of letters, known as graphemes, represent the smallest units of spoken language, called phonemes. This knowledge is more easily acquired if the child already has early phonological skills and knowledge of the letters of the alphabet.

Additionally, research has found that vocabulary is crucial for reading comprehension, and that when children are familiar with the meaning of a word, they can more easily learn how to recognize it by sight. Other skills that are related to later reading and writing ability include writing letters, rapidly naming sequences of letters, numbers, or pictures, and phonological skills like the ability to segment words into phonemes. To decode words, children must learn to blend together the phonemes that represent the graphemes on the page. This process can be taught through synthetic phonics, in which students learn the sounds of the letters first and then blend them together to sound out words, or analytic phonics, in which students learn to identify the phonemes within words and use that knowledge to read other words.

So there’s synthetic phonics and analytic phonics—is one way better than the other?

A number of studies have suggested that synthetic phonics is more effective than analytic phonics for teaching children to read. One particularly notable study from Scotland found that children who were taught synthetic phonics in first grade performed better in reading and spelling than those who were taught analytic phonics. However, when looking at the overall research on the topic, it is not clear which method is more effective. Two major research reviews have not found a significant difference between the two methods, and more recent studies are still inconclusive.

Can you tell me how to teach words that don't follow traditional sound-spelling patterns, such as "one" and "friend", using phonics?

The strategies for teaching phonics can be applied to words that do not follow traditional sound-spelling patterns. However, it is not recommended to rely solely on phonics for these words, as spelling and semantic rules also play a role in teaching letter sounds. For example, words like "lime" and "dime" have similar spelling and pronunciation, but some words with similar spelling have different pronunciations, like "pint" and "mint." Brain imaging studies have found that when readers encounter word pairs that are inconsistent, they show greater activity in the areas of the brain associated with processing both visual spelling and spoken words. This indicates that young readers use both printed shapes and sounds when they see any written word. When those two systems conflict, the reader may call on additional rules, such as understanding that words at the end of lines of a rhyming poem likely rhyme even if their spelling would not suggest it.

Research has found that teaching common irregular words, like "one" and "friend," as sight words can be effective. However, it is important to note that these studies also taught phonics along with sight words. Understanding phonics gives students the foundation to read these irregular words. For example, while the "ie" in "friend" does not produce the same sound it normally does, the other letters in the word do. Research has suggested that children use the "fr" and the "nd" as a framework when they remember how to read the irregular word "friend."

When should children start to learn how to sound out words? Is there a “too early”?

Research has shown that even young children can greatly benefit from learning phonological awareness. The National Early Literacy Panel Report of 2009, which analyzed various early literacy studies, found that teaching preschoolers and kindergartners how to recognize the sounds in words, both orally and in relation to print, improves their reading and writing skills. These studies typically involved children between the ages of 3 and 5. Additionally, progress in phonics is more closely linked to a child's vocabulary size and opportunities to practice and apply new phonics rules, rather than their age. While some studies suggest that using "decodable" books can be helpful for early readers, there is mixed evidence on this and as children progress, they may benefit more from texts that include more complex and irregular words, and that they find more interesting.

How much time should teachers spend on teaching about letters and sounds in class?

It is not yet clear how much time should be spent on phonics instruction for it to be most effective. In several meta-analyses, researchers have not found a direct correlation between program length and effectiveness. The National Reading Panel report found that programs focusing on phonemic awareness, which involves being able to hear, identify, and manipulate the smallest units of speech sounds, that lasted less than 20 hours total had the greatest impact on reading skills. These programs typically had individual sessions that lasted 25 minutes on average. However, the authors of the National Reading Panel report note that these findings are descriptive and not prescriptive, as the studies they looked at were not specifically testing the effectiveness of different time lengths, and it may be that time was not the crucial factor in the success of these shorter programs.

Eventually, a skilled reader does not need to sound out every word they read, as they recognize the word immediately through a process called orthographic mapping, which occurs through repeated exposure to the same word over time. However, neuroscience research has shown that even when a word is recognized as a whole, the brain is still briefly attending to the individual letters in the word, which enables readers to tell the difference between similar words.

What else—aside from phonics—is part of a research-based early reading program?

Phonics is an essential aspect of a research-based reading program. Students must be able to decode words in order to understand them, but mastering the alphabetic code does not guarantee good reading skills. The National Reading Panel identified five key components of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. The panel found that practicing reading out loud with guidance and feedback improves fluency, and that providing multiple opportunities for students to see and use new words in context improves comprehension. They also found that teaching comprehension strategies can lead to gains in reading achievement, particularly for older students. The Simple View of Reading framework, proposed in 1986 by Gough and Tunmer, posits that reading comprehension is the result of both decoding ability and language comprehension. Studies have supported this idea, and have found that phonics-focused interventions are most effective for younger students, while interventions that target comprehension or a mix of reading skills are more beneficial for older students. Additionally, early oral-language interventions can help set young children up for success before they begin formal schooling.

Why is it recommended for parents and teachers to read to infants and preschoolers, even if they may not learn to read naturally from being exposed to reading?

The time spent reading with young children is a strong predictor of their reading skills when they reach elementary school. It is important that children have exposure to new words and their meanings and grammar rules, which they are more likely to pick up when reading aloud with adults. Studies by Victoria Purcell-Gates have shown that children who were read to regularly had more advanced language skills and were exposed to more complex sentence structures. An adult reading with a child also provides an opportunity to explain or expand on the meaning of words and concepts, which improves their background knowledge. Furthermore, reading with adults helps children develop a love of reading. This connection between hearing written language and feeling loved is considered to be the best foundation for emergent literacy by cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf.

Is there a difference in the way children learn to read when using printed books versus digital ones?

In recent years, access to digital text has grown and many schools have begun to use digital books, particularly for students who do not have easy access to physical books at home. However, some research suggests that children may learn to read differently when reading in print vs. digitally, which could negatively impact their comprehension abilities. Studies have shown that people who read digital text tend to skim or read nonlinearly, looking for key words and jumping to the end for conclusions. Additionally, research by Anne Mangen and her team has found that students who read short stories and longer texts in print format were better able to remember the plot and sequence of events than those who read the same text on a screen. While it is not yet clear how widespread these changes are, teachers should be aware of the potential impact of digital reading on students' comprehension and deeper reading skills.

In conclusion, while access to digital text has grown in recent years, studies suggest that children may learn to read differently when reading in print vs. digitally. This could negatively impact their comprehension abilities, with students who read short stories and longer texts in print format being better able to remember the plot and sequence of events than those who read the same text on a screen. The science is clear that teaching systematic phonics is the most reliable way to make sure that children learn how to read. To help your child learn to read with confidence, consider using Learn with Koala, a website that provides interactive and fun phonics-based reading lessons for children. You can find and book those classes on this page.

Happy Learning!

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