Key to success in learning to read and write

#literacy

Because the 44 English sounds are written with 205 spellings (or graphemes), and 69 of them have more than one pronunciation, - englishspellingproblems.blogsp..., teaching children to read and write English is more difficult than in other alphabetically written languages. And because children's abilities to cope with illogical learning differ, there is no method that suits ALL pupils equally. What matters most is simply practice, with some students needing much more of it than others.

The currently government-approved synthetic phonics approach advocates progressive teaching of the basics with controlled vocabularies and specially written texts, and a gradual drip-feeding of tricky words. This is much the same as recommended by James Dunn in 1766, in his book ‘The Best Method of Teaching to Read and Spell English’:

“…begin with words that are absolutely regular….”

“…give special emphasis to the pronunciation of c and g …”

“…introduce other difficulties progressively.”

This is sensible enough, and most children learn to read passably well that way, in roughly three years. Many need longer. Quite a few others find it too slow, and look for their own ways to learn faster.

My daughter Lena taught herself to read in about six months, at around age 4, chiefly with a Ladybirds version of ‘Most popular nursery rhymes’. She learned by reading and re-reading the verses she already knew by heart. She also wanted to hear her favourite stories read to her over and over again, with her following the words on the page, especially 'The Pied Piper of Hamlin'.

I tried to teach her some phonics, but after meeting the silent h in John, she continued to rely mainly on her own method. Like most good readers, she understood from the start that fluent reading requires instant recognition of all common words as whole words. She therefore concentrated on increasing her stock of sight-words.

Keen young readers improve rapidly, mainly because they become obsessed with wanting to learn. They practise with road and shop signs, as well as books. They try to read all words that catch their eye. If they can’t decipher them, they ask for help, but they understand quite early on that decoding is not fluent reading.

Learning to recognise words by sight, as fluent readers do, does not mean paying no attention whatsoever to their letters, or treating them like pictures, as phonics evangelists tend to dismiss efforts to do so. - Most consonant spellings have relatively stable sounds (as I explained in my piece 'Good English spellings'), and children are wise enough to learn those, and to use this knowledge for deciphering the much trickier vowel sounds.

Children sensibly use everything they find helpful: pictures, context, their grasp of grammar, and their knowledge of letter sounds - anything that helps them to increase their stock of sight-words. Their main goal in learning to read is being able to read all common words on sight, instantly, without the need for decoding or other deciphering, as quickly and efficiently as possible. 

Teachers should bear this in mind when helping slower learners. Weak readers often find the different sounds for identical letters, like the ‘a’ in ‘and any apron’ or ‘o’ in ‘on only one other’, highly confusing, and therefore learning to read by means of decoding harder than most. Continuing to teach them basic phonic patterns, and exceptions to them, year after year, often fails to improve their reading significantly. It can be far more profitable, after firming up their knowledge of consonant spellings, to concentrate on growing their stock of sight-words. Nobody can read well for as long as words like 'thought, through' or 'daughter laughed' keep causing difficulties. 

In learning to write, practice is even more important. The physical act of doing it, both with pen and keyboard, helps to imprint the 'right look' of words on pupil's minds. Phonics is of no help with learning the right spelling of the tricky bits in words like ‘friend, said, Wednesday’. Even less so for ‘there/their’ or 'it's/its' and the like. 

Getting enough practice is what really counts, for both learning to read and write English, far more than any particular teaching method.   

Author Profile

Masha  Bell

Masha Bell

Retired teacher of English and modern languages, now literacy researcher and writer

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