What do children really need to know to be ready to read?

See letters-think sounds

In order for children to be able to read (decode) unfamiliar words, they need to look at letters, automatically think of the sound each letter or letter team (like ee in feet) stands for, and blend those sounds together from left to right. Even as adults, this is what skillful readers do when we encounter an unfamiliar word. When you see the nonsense word narber, you quickly blend the sounds /n/ /ar/ /b/ and /er/ together. If we focus on this end goal—looking at letters and automatically thinking sounds—we will see that many common practices thought to help prepare children for reading can actually prevent young children from looking at letters and thinking sounds. Let’s examine and rethink some of these common practices.

“Efarojy” spells frog? Letter names don’t help children read.

The name of the letter b isn’t in the word bed. Neither is the name of e or d, for that matter. For children who are trying to make sense of the letters on a page, the names of the letters do nothing but mislead and cause distraction; it’s the sounds letters stand for that will help them understand the connection between spoken and written words. “Emyoody” doesn’t sound anything like the word mud but that is what you get if you blend the names of m, u, and d together. The names of letters are middle men that get in the way of automatically thinking of sounds, so they shouldn’t be taught as reading-readiness skills. Most British schools have stopped teaching letter names to children when they are first learning to read, and some American schools are beginning to do the same. Letter names need to be taught at some point because we use them to talk about letters, but they aren’t the place to begin.

Start with lower case letters.

MANY ADULTS FOCUS ON TEACHING CAPITAL LETTERS TO YOUNG CHILDREN, BUT WHEN WE READ, MOST OF THE LETTERS WE SEE ARE lowercase, so that is where we should start. That’s what children will be reading and that’s what they should be writing. Focusing on one set of letters at the beginning is better than focusing on both capital and lower case because children can learn and understand a one-to-one relationship much more easily than a two-to-one relationship. If one set of letters is to become automatic first, it should be the set used most often. After children understand the relationship between sounds and letters, they will easily learn capital letters as a special set of letters that are used in certain situations.

Some people argue that capital letters should be taught first because some lower case letters are very similar to each other and are easily confused, like b and d. Children confuse these letters because most objects in the world don’t change their identity when flipped around or put upside down. A coffee cup is still a coffee cup when the handle is on the other side or when we turn it upside down. Not so with some letters. It takes children time to get these letters straight, so the sooner the better, I say. Start with what they will need the most rather than what is the easiest.

When you do discuss capital letters, please use the terms lower case and capital (or upper case if you prefer) rather than “big b” and “little b.” The terms big and little can be confusing to young children because a capital letter can be tiny and a lower case letter can be huge. Although size matters, it isn’t always what makes the difference.

Don’t add an extra uh to the tricky sounds.

t  c/k  p  Most adults add an extra “uh” to the sounds of some letters. The sounds of tc/k, and are often incorrectly taught as “tuh”, “kuh”, and “puh.” When we say these sounds in words, our vocal chords don’t vibrate, so when these sounds are isolated, they should come out like a whisper. To understand why it is important to say these sounds as a whisper, take the example of the word pet. If you combine the sounds /puh/ /e/ and /tuh/, you don’t get pet, you get something like pu-etuh. Some children can remove the extra “uhs” to hear the word, but for other children, these extra sounds are very confusing and prevent them from understanding how letters work. When we segment the sounds that are actually in pet, the /p/ and the /t/ sound are both whispered, unvoiced sounds that can be blended back together to form the word pet.

b  d  g  The sounds spelled by the letters bd, and  are very short sounds that are difficult to say without attaching a vowel sound, so it is important to try to keep these sounds as short as possible. In addition to making reading difficult, adding an extra “uh” to letter sounds can contribute to spelling problems. If the letter b spelled /buh/, then there would be no need for the u in bus or bun. They would be spelled bs and bn.

y  w  Nearly everyone adds “uh” to the sounds spelled by the letters y and w. If you really listen to the first sound in the words yes and yoyo, you can hear that it sounds a lot like the name of the letter e. In fact, if you blend the sounds /ee/ /e/ /s/ together, you can hear the word yes much better than if you blend the sounds /yuh/ /e/ /s/.  Similarly, if you really listen to the first sound in the words win and wax, you’ll find it sounds a lot like the /oo/ sound at the end of zoo. If you blend the sounds /oo/ /i/ /n/ it sounds almost like win. Try to make your w sound closer to /oo/ than to “wuh.”

Keep it simple and clear.

We have about 43 sounds in the words we say every day. Unfortunately, we only have 26 letters. The English language also has a long and “rich” history with influences from many languages. These facts have lead to complicated relationships between the sounds in English and the letters and letter teams that spell them. Many letters can spell more than one sound and many sounds can be spelled by more than one letter or letter team. The earliest reading instruction should start with simple one sound-to-one letter relationships.

Start with one sound per letter.

Young children learn and understand information most easily when it is presented as a one-to-one relationship. Unfortunately, written English is not simple. We have very complex relationships between our letters and sounds. Sometimes one letter can spell many sounds, like a does in catladywatch and cola, and sometimes we have more than one way to spell a sound, like the six ways to spell the sound /ae/ in dayrainladyateeight, and they. The earliest reading instruction should begin with the one most common sound each letter spells when it is working alone and isn’t affected by any other letters in the word.

The letter c spells /k/ in front of most letters, but when it comes in front of the vowels e, i, and y, it spells /s/. It cannot spell /s/ in front of any other letters and it cannot spell /k/ in front of e, i, or y  (with the exception of the second c in soccer). This information should certainly be taught to children, but not in the earliest stages of reading or pre-reading. Begin with c spells /k/ rather than both. There aren’t many simple words in which c spells /s/, so this concept can be introduced later. I’ve heard teachers tell young children, “C spells /k/ half the time and /s/ half the time.” This statement is nowhere near true and it leads to guessing rather than using the information available. I think it’s better to wait. Similar logic applies to the letter g. The letter g cannot spell /j/ unless the next letter is ei, or . The letter g, however, can still spell the sound /g/ in front of these three letters.


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