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At a Loss for Words

How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers

For decades, schools have taught children the strategies of struggling readers, using a theory about reading that cognitive scientists have repeatedly debunked. And many teachers and parents don't know there's anything wrong with it.

Molly Woodworth was a kid who seemed to do well at everything: good grades, in the gifted and talented program. But she couldn't read very well.

"There was no rhyme or reason to reading for me," she said. "When a teacher would dictate a word and say, 'Tell me how you think you can spell it,' I sat there with my mouth open while other kids gave spellings, and I thought, 'How do they even know where to begin?' I was totally lost."

Woodworth went to public school in Owosso, Michigan, in the 1990s. She says sounds and letters just didn't make sense to her, and she doesn't remember anyone teaching her how to read. So she came up with her own strategies to get through text.

Strategy 1: Memorize as many words as possible. "Words were like pictures to me," she said. "I had a really good memory."

Strategy 2: Guess the words based on context. If she came across a word she didn't have in her visual memory bank, she'd look at the first letter and come up with a word that seemed to make sense. Reading was kind of like a game of 20 Questions: What word could this be?

Strategy 3: If all else failed, she'd skip the words she didn't know.

Most of the time, she could get the gist of what she was reading. But getting through text took forever. "I hated reading because it was taxing," she said. "I'd get through a chapter and my brain hurt by the end of it. I wasn't excited to learn."

No one knew how much she struggled, not even her parents. Her reading strategies were her "dirty little secrets."

Molly Woodworth (left) with her aunt, Nora Chahbazi, outside the Ounce of Prevention Reading Center in Flushing, Michigan. Emily Hanford | APM Reports

Woodworth, who now works in accounting,1 says she's still not a very good reader and tears up when she talks about it. Reading "influences every aspect of your life," she said. She's determined to make sure her own kids get off to a better start than she did.

That's why she was so alarmed to see how her oldest child, Claire, was being taught to read in school.

 

As long as this disproven theory remains part of American education, many kids will likely struggle to learn how to read.

 

A couple of years ago, Woodworth was volunteering in Claire's kindergarten classroom. The class was reading a book together and the teacher was telling the children to practice the strategies that good readers use.

The teacher said, "If you don't know the word, just look at this picture up here," Woodworth recalled. "There was a fox and a bear in the picture. And the word was bear, and she said, 'Look at the first letter. It's a "b." Is it fox or bear?'"

Woodworth was stunned. "I thought, 'Oh my God, those are my strategies.' Those are the things I taught myself to look like a good reader, not the things that good readers do," she said. "These kids were being taught my dirty little secrets."

She went to the teacher and expressed her concerns. The teacher told her she was teaching reading the way the curriculum told her to.

Woodworth had stumbled on to American education's own little secret about reading: Elementary schools across the country are teaching children to be poor readers — and educators may not even know it.

For decades, reading instruction in American schools has been rooted in a flawed theory about how reading works, a theory that was debunked decades ago by cognitive scientists, yet remains deeply embedded in teaching practices and curriculum materials. As a result, the strategies that struggling readers use to get by — memorizing words, using context to guess words, skipping words they don't know — are the strategies that many beginning readers are taught in school. This makes it harder for many kids to learn how to read, and children who don't get off to a good start in reading find it difficult to ever master the process.2

A shocking number of kids in the United States can't read very well. A third of all fourth-graders can't read at a basic level, and most students are still not proficient readers by the time they finish high school.

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How to Teach Phonics to Beginning Readers

Phonics is the best, most efficient way to teach children how to read. Yes, plenty of words break the “rules” and don’t sound exactly the way they look, but phonics is still the strongest way to give children a strong foundational understanding of how to translate the lines and squiggles on the page into the sounds that make up language. And as a teacher, you can make your students’ experiences as beginning readers fun and exciting.

Learning phonics is the big first step toward the joys of reading. So how can you teach phonics in a way that’s just as interesting as the books your students will eventually enjoy?

We have a few ideas. But let’s step back for a moment and make sure we’re on the same page about phonics itself.

What Phonics Is and How It Works

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, phonics is “a method of teaching people to read by correlating sounds with letters or groups of letters in an alphabetic writing system.” 

In other words, when students learn phonics, they learn the sounds associated with lines and squiggles we call letters — and they learn how those letters work together to create even more sounds, all of which together shape the words we use to communicate.

Phonics is a straightforward, methodical way of teaching decoding, the first skill that, with comprehension, goes into effective reading. Without solid decoding skills, students can’t make good progress on reading comprehension because they haven’t accurately read the words on the page. Unlike other methods of teaching reading, like the outdated “whole language” approach, phonics doesn’t rely on context clues (which assume possession of a level of decoding and comprehension skills). Rather, phonics treats letters as an actual code for the sounds we often speak.

Due to the English language’s many influences, there are many words that don’t exactly follow the phonics rules. Good phonics lessons, then, will also cover a handful of sight words (like the), along with common exceptions to various rules and the variations in sounds that letter combinations like /ea/ can make (bread/meat/pearl).

Before students can start matching sounds to letters, however, they must be aware of the sounds themselves.

Start with Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to recognize distinct sounds in spoken language. This comes with good listening skills and translates into reading by helping students match sounds to letters and combinations of sounds to words.

While phonemic awareness begins at home (parents play a crucial role in developing this skill), educators can help strengthen students’ phonemic awareness through lessons and activities that emphasize sounds. Reading books that rhyme at storytime, practicing animal sounds, or playing games with more advanced students that task them with rhyming or recalling words with similar sounds. 

What word rhymes with dress?

What animals start with a /p/ sound?

Integrating questions and activities like this throughout the school day can help students naturally pick up and distinguish more sounds. Once students have started learning their letters, you can take these activities a step further: 

If mess and dress rhyme, what letters might they both have? What about puppy and polar bear and penguin?

How to Teach Phonics

The best way to teach phonics is in a systematic way that starts simple and adds complexity over time, as students pick up skills. Don’t dwell too long on any one step — mastering one level of phonics should immediately lead to the next level so students can progress in their reading ability before getting bored.

1. Start with simple hard consonants and short vowel sounds.

You’ll gradually work through the whole alphabet, but start with a group of letters (often, S, A, T, P, I, N) that can be combined to make a variety of words. This way, as students learn the individual letters and sounds, they can see how those letters work together to create words.

2. Introduce blending with simple 3-letter words.

Nap, sit, pat. Once your students have learned a few letters, have them practice “sounding out” simple 3-letter words. These should be words that use the simple hard consonant and short vowel sounds that your students already know.

3. Introduce more complex consonant combinations and bump up to 4-letter words.

Your phonics curriculum will outline exactly which combinations to start with, but once your students have mastered most of the letters’ sounds, you’ll need to introduce them to letter combinations that change the shape of the sound. For example: st, gr, lm, ng, sh. Some of these are more straightforward than others, so start with what can more easily be sounded out — and be sure to show these combinations in real words your students can read!

4. Teach vowel combinations — ea, oo, ai — and put them into action.

Vowel combinations can be more complicated and irregular than consonant combinations, so seeing them in real words is even more important. Exercises that have students identify words with similar vowel sounds can be helpful for ingraining this knowledge (ex: bear, hair, learn, pear).

As readers advance, encourage them to write as well as read! Once they know their letters and sounds, they can practice writing their ideas. Even if their spelling isn’t correct, this helps them practice applying their knowledge of letter sounds.

Make Learning Phonics Fun!

Reading is fun — and learning to read should be too! There are a whole host of ways you can make learning phonics more fun and interactive. Here are a few of our ideas:

1. Magnetic letters and/or letter blocks.

During playtime or certain breaks throughout the day, have magnetic letters or letter blocks out and encourage your students to take turns spelling out different words they know — or even words they’re making up! Nonsense words can be a fun way to practice letter sounds, and who knows? Your students may even find out that they already know how to spell a fun word.

2. Play games like “I Spy” and “Animal Names”.

You can use “I Spy” books or just play the game in your classroom with prompts like “I spy something starting with the /f/ sound.” You can use either sounds or letters for this game, depending on whether you want to focus on phonemic awareness or the letter-sound relationship. For Animal Names, everyone picks an animal that starts with the same letter as their first name (Henry hippo, Amber alligator, Marty mouse); you can also play with other categories like sports or fruits and vegetables.

3. Label the classroom.

You can label the classroom — or you can hand your students sticky notes and ask them to label different objects in the classroom (desks, whiteboard, trash can, etc.). If you do the labeling, the labels can help observant students learn more words and spellings as they come to school each day. If your students do the labeling, they get to practice their spelling and phonetic word creation skills. 

Phonics is your students’ first foray into reading for themselves — and how you teach phonics can make the learning process fun and interesting. Hopefully, we’ve sparked your imagination. Now, let’s pass that inspiration to students!

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