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Education Today: How Children Learn to Read

Education Today
How Children Learn to Read

Reading skills are like building blocks. To learn to read well, children need the blocks of knowing the sounds of letters and the blocks of knowing the meanings of words (vocabulary), word parts (grammatical markers) and groups of words (overall meaning or semantics). To build these foundations of reading, children need effective reading instruction.
The best ways for parents to learn about the kinds of reading instruction at their child's school is to talk with teachers, listen to him or her talk about what they do during the day, and examine homework assignments. Knowing the differences between phonics and whole language--the two main approaches to teaching reading--can help parents determine what methods their child's school is using to teach reading.
Phonics focuses on the sounds of letters and words
A phonics approach focuses instruction on learning to associate printed letters and combinations of letters with their corresponding sounds. Phonics instruction gives students strategies to unlock or decode words.
Whole language focuses on comprehension
The whole language approach is based on the understanding that reading is finding the meaning in written language. Multiple experiences with words--written and spoken--are what children need to learn meanings of words.
A balanced approach can help all children learn to read
A decade of research shows us that there is no one best way to build students' literacy skills. A balanced approach to teaching reading combines a strong foundation in phonics with whole language methods. Only through more than one kind of instruction can students gain the skills to recognize and manipulate the sounds of letters and words and the skills to understand what they read. Since all children learn differently, only a balanced approach to teaching reading can give all children the skills they need to read well.
An effective reading program
From long-term studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health, it is known that an effective reading program should include the following components.
Recognize that students learn to read in a certain order: first they must understand that words are made up of different sounds, then associate sounds with written words, and finally they can decode words and read groups of words.
Students who have trouble learning to read need to be specifically taught the relationships of letters, words and sounds. (Awareness of letter/sound relationships is the main tool good readers use to decode unfamiliar words.)
Each child needs a different amount of practice to be a fluent reader.
Phonics instruction should be based on individual student needs and taught as part of a comprehensive, literature-based reading program.
Abundant opportunities for children to read at their own reading level help them to learn to read for meaning and enjoy reading.
Highly trained teachers can help children develop good, overall literacy skills: good vocabularies, knowledge of correct syntax and spelling, reasoning skills and questioning skills.
Early warning signs of reading problems
From preschool through fourth grade, parents can watch for the following signs their child may have a learning reading problem:
* Slow to learn the connection between letters and sounds
* Difficulty "sounding out" unknown words
* Repeatedly misidentifying known words
* Makes consistent reading and spelling errors including letter reversals (b/d), inversions (m/w), transpositions (felt/left), and substitutions (house/home)
* Difficulty understanding or remembering what is read because so much time and effort is spent figuring each word
If a child regularly displays one or more of these behaviors, he or she may have a reading problem and parents should seek appropriate testing and intervention from their child's school.

Budd A. Moore, Ed.D., is a school counselor in Washington County. Email him at buddm4cnsl@comcast.net

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