Some people know that the whole language approach to teaching reading doesn’t work, and think that we should just return to old-style phonics. After all, “That’s the way I learned.” Unfortunately, the National Reading Panel stated that old-style phonics was also not the best approach because it relied too heavily on children memorizing rules and the exceptions to those rules. For example, if you teach the rule that when two vowels are side-by-side in a word the word uses the long vowel sound of the first vowel, then you must teach the exceptions as well. While the rule may work in some cases, the exceptions are too many to count: head, heart, earth, wear, air, break, sieve, breakfast, eight, sleigh, and the list could go on and on. The National Reading Panel said that for children to learn to read, they need to learn how to take words apart by letter sound and then put the letter sounds back together and pronounce the word, not memorize rules and exceptions to those rules. Children need phonemic awareness. This is the idea behind vowel clustering, which is the method that I use in my reading clinics.
The best way to teach children to read is to teach phonemic awareness. In other words, children must understand letter sounds to be able to read. Memorizing sight words will not teach children to read.
Children learn to read from interventions that stress intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is motivation from within. Giving children rewards and prizes is extrinsic motivation,which is much less effective. As soon as the rewards go away, the reading stops. Instead, children learn to read because they want to read and enjoy reading rather than being forced or bribed to read. Children made the pop-up village by reading written directions. They enjoyed the project, and reading helped them to accomplish it. This is intrinsic motivation.
People make many false assumptions about teaching children to read. Here are the most common myths and why they are wrong.
False Assumption: Some people believe that if we just read stories to children that children will automatically learn to read.
Fact: Reading and speaking are not the same. We learn to speak by listening to others, but we cannot learn to read by simply listening to someone else read. Reading a child a story should be a daily activity and is one of the most wonderful ways that you can spend time with a child, but it will not teach a child to read. Neuroimaging research studies showing how the brain works while children are learning to read emphasizes that reading and speaking are different. For a child to learn to read, the child must be able to look at a word and decode the letters into sounds. It’s like handing you a book in French. If you cannot read French, then the pages of the book are filled with meaningless letters and words because you do not know how to decode the letters into the correct sounds. The same is true for children who have not been taught how to break down or decode the letter sounds used in English.
False Assumption: Some people believe that, if we insist that children memorize sight words, learn a certain number of new words each day, or preview sight words before trying to read, children will then just naturally learn to read.
Fact: The National Reading Panel conducted a study in 2000 and learned from their nationwide research that any and all forms of whole language (memorizing word lists) and even old style phonics were not effective ways to teach children to read. Why? The study stated that in order for children to learn to read effectively they must have “phonemic awareness.” Neither whole language nor old style phonics teaches phonemic awareness effectively. Phonemic awareness means understanding letter sounds—not rules or a weekly list of words. Some children cannot memorize weekly word lists; therefore, they fail to learn to read if that is the only method taught in school. Research also shows that even children who are able to memorize weekly word lists in the early elementary grades often begin to struggle around third grade. These children begin to have reading and comprehension problems in third grade because it is impossible to memorize every single word. Children memorize the word list for the weekly test and then promptly forget the words after the test.
False Assumption: Some people believe that if we just expose children to books or give them free books that this will teach children to read. One group went out and collected 1 million books to give to needy children.
Fact: A book is probably the best gift you can ever give to a child, but it will not teach children to read. The truth is that children cannot learn to read until they understand that every letter represents at least one sound and many letters represent several sounds. The letter A, for example, can use seven different sounds, which doesn’t sound too difficult until you realize that there are at least 22 different vowel and consonant combinations that can be used to make these seven sounds for just the letter A.
False Assumption: Still others believe that all we need to do is just get children excited about reading. They organize large pep rally style gatherings using costumed characters. They proceed to teach children cheers that tell how wonderful it is to learn to read. Sometimes they even read a story and give away free books.
Fact: Pep rallies are fine. Reading stories and giving away free books are wonderful, but these pep rally style gatherings do not actually teach the children how to read the book that they are given. A baby must learn how to pull up, balance, and take a step before the baby can have any hope of learning to walk. It’s a step-by-step process. Reading is much the same. Children must learn to read one step at a time.
Elaine Clanton Harpine, Ph.D.
Elaine is a program designer with many years of experience helping at-risk children learn to read. She earned a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology (Counseling) from the Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.