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, nor will simply listening to someone else read a story improve a child’s reading skills. 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. As Sally Shaywitz explains, “In order to read, a child must ‘enter the language system;’ this means that the child must activate and use the brain circuits that are already in place for oral language…. tens of thousands of neurons carrying the phonological messages necessary for language… Connect to form the resonating networks that make skilled reading possible….” (pp. 59-68) (Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003). Simply handing a child a book, while one of the best possible gifts, will not teach a child to read. Children must be taught to read; it is not automatic.
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 of 100,000 teaching situations 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 for children to learn to read effectively they must have “phonemic awareness.” Neither whole language nor old-style phonics teaches phonemic awareness. 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 can 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. Yet, even after neuroimaging research visually showed how sounding out the word c a t was better than teaching a child to memorize the word cat (Yoncheva, Wise, & McCandliss, 2015), whole language continues to prevail. It has been conclusively proven that there is no advantage to using whole language. Yet, thousands of children are still being taught using whole language, “look-say,” or balanced literacy teaching methods.
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 seem 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. Simply buying books does not teach letter-sound relationships. Words are stored as sounds, not words. We do not have a Rolodex of words in the brain. We learn new words by developing pathways in the brain that correspond to the articulation of letter sounds. Therefore, it becomes critical that we teach letter sounds. Phonemic awareness teaches letter sound relationships that focus on oral sounds, the same way the brain learns new sounds. Phonemic awareness and phonics are not the same, do not use the same teaching approach, and are not interchangeable terms. Phonemic awareness means that you are teaching students to break words down into letter sounds (decoding). Then, students learn to put those letter sounds back together and to pronounce or read the word (encoding). It’s a two-step process that does not involve memorizing word lists or phonics rules. Phonics and phonemic awareness are totally different teaching approaches. They both stress letter sounds, but that is where the similarity ends.
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 books 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. As Dr. Sally Shaywitz (see Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003) explains, “Children do not learn to read by memorizing a word list. Most children, especially those who struggle in reading, do not learn to read by memorizing phonics rules.” (p. 78) We have the knowledge, the research, and the ability to teach every single child across the nation to read, so why do we cling to failed teaching methods and force students to continue to fail in reading?
See my 11/20/18 blog post for an explanation of why systematic phonics and whole language both fail.