Although there are many theories on how children learn to read, the most reliable method is to teach young children systematic phonics so they can learn to crack the written language code. Surrounding your children with books and teaching your kids to strategically guess how to read words based on context does not work. This is because reading is not a natural process and needs to be taught. These strategies may help students enjoy reading and improve comprehension after they are systematically taught phonics, but cannot replace explicit phonics instruction. Additionally, children need to learn that written letters have different sounds and they need to be able to connect these sounds in order to decipher words. They also need vocabulary knowledge so they can understand what they read. Eventually, children will learn to recognize most words automatically and read connected text fluently.
In order to read fluently children must first be able to decode. Children need explicit phonics instruction on how to recognize that certain letters have certain sounds and be able to segment words to identify the individual letters and sounds. This is true for all early readers, but particularly those who struggle to read. In fact, only 1-7% of children figure out how to decode on their own without explicit instruction. A systematic phonics program teaches an order progression of letter- sound correspondence. The letter sounds and combinations are taught in sequence, only moving onto the next after students demonstrate mastery. Teachers explicitly tell students what sounds correspond to letter patterns rather than asking students to guess.
Before kindergarten students should learn how to rhyme, break down multisyllable words, and recognize alliteration. During kindergarten students learn letter sound correspondence. There has been evidence that vocabulary is not only important for reading comprehension, but can also help children recognize words more automatically because the visual letters, corresponding sounds and meanings map together when a reader recognizes a word. After a child learns 44 most common sound and letter combinations they will begin to sound out words as they read. According to the National Early Literacy Panel Report in 2009, children who were taught how to distinguish sounds in word (segmenting orally or in print) improved their reading and writing the most. More important than even a child’s age is their spoken vocabulary and opportunity to practice and apply new phonic rules. Decodable books provide children with practice on specific letter and sound combinations, but after students become more proficient they should practice reading texts with more complex and irregular words.
Programs that focused on phonemic awareness, ability to hear, identify and manipulate smallest speech sounds that lasted about 25 min on average per session and less than 20 hours total had the greatest impact on students’ reading skills. While explicit instruction in phonics is key to teaching reading, the five essential components of reading include phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Although reading to children does not help them actually help them directly decode words, it does help them develop a love of reading as well as help them develop a large vocabulary that will influence their reading skills down the line. Just something to keep in mind as a great bedtime habit rather than watching television.