It is now widely accepted that spoken language usually comes to most of us instinctively. However, learning to read (a distant memory for most of us!) is a complicated skill that often must be explicitly taught. This is the first article in a series on reading, focusing on how children learn reading or ‘decoding’ skills. Click here for the rest of the series.

Learning to Read

Letters can be understood as a code in which letters represent sounds. These sounds can then form words, this is known as the ‘alphabetic principle’.  Emergent readers must work on cracking this code. This is known simply as reading; however, it can also be referred to as ‘de-coding’. The first steps for emergent readers are matching letters to the proper associated sound, and then blending sounds together (e.g. c-a-t) to create a word (e.g. cat). The ability to hear and segment individual sounds in words, and blend sounds to read words, is called ‘phonemic awareness’.

Reading to Learn

As our reading skills develop, our brains typically make a switch from sounding out words to automatically recognizing words as a whole, similar to going from a nervous learner driver concentrating on every detail of driving to a confident driver now able to think about other things or talk to our passengers while driving. In this sense, reading has now become an automatic skill. As an individual improves their reading fluency, their ability to absorb information within texts also improves. This indicates the shift from learning-to-read to reading-to-learn.

The Phonics Approach

In recent years, there has been much debate over the most effective way to teach reading. Research evidence points to phonics instruction as the best approach to building a strong foundation for reading in most children. The phonics approach means that children should be explicitly taught letter-sound relationships in a structured way, as well as strategies to blend and segment words. In English, the Roman alphabet has 44 phonic sounds that are usually taught in the systematic order: s, a, t, p, i, n, m, d, g, o, c, k/ck, e, u, r, h, b, f, l, j, v, w, x, y, z, qu, ch, sh, th, ng, ai, ee, igh/ie, oa, oo (short), oo (long), ar, or, ur/er, ow/ou, oi, air, ear, ure.

Although some words in English are not decodable and are known as ‘sight words’, teaching children the relationship between letters and sounds gives them the tools to make sense of most unfamiliar words by identifying and then blending the sounds within.

Understanding how children learn to read and providing the right opportunities for them to learn and practice will let your child gain the necessary skills to become confident readers. Check out the other articles in this series, with games and tips to boost your child’s reading skills!