Learning to read is no doubt complex. It is not a natural process where children learn through repetition and exposure to print. Children need to be taught the skills to be able to decode words before they can become fluent, confident readers.
With around 44% of Australian adults having poor literacy skills it is imperative that appropriate, evidence-based approaches to teaching children to read are being implemented. Reading difficulties are not only an educational problem, it goes beyond the classroom and can have social, financial and emotional implications. How do we go about teaching children that abstract symbols and squiggles on a page represent meaningful sounds, and what approaches are more effective than others?
Phonic method vs whole word approach
Phonics is a method for teaching reading and spelling by developing the child’s phonemic awareness. There are two main approaches to the teaching phonics, synthetic and analytic. Synthetic and analytic phonics differ in the following way.
Analytic phonicsfocuses on teaching the whole words first and then analysing the components which made up the word later. For example, after learning the word from sight and becoming familiar with the word ‘mat’, the word is broken into its parts, /m/… /a/… /t/, and then analysed. The single sound that is analysed is learned and then the words starting with the same letter are taught. The analysis of the word ‘mat’ would normally take place after reading.
In contrast, synthetic phonics teach the connection between phonemes and graphemes explicitly, and then the skills such as blending (what do the sounds mmm-aaa-ttt make?) and segmenting (what are the sounds in mat?) are learned after a few letters sounds have been taught.
Whole word approaches to reading are based on the belief that reading results from visual memorization of whole words and teaches children to read by sight and using contextual clues rather than by sounding out words. This raises great concerns as psychological studies have concluded that the limit for memorising symbols and words is around 1500 to 2000, which is not nearly large enough to memorise all words. As you can imagine, a child who is learning to read using this model will eventually run out of visual memory creating a barrier to learning new words.
Reading programs, such as the well-intended Reading Recovery, which is largely whole-word based, is an example where it has failed to provide the necessary skills for struggling readers. The NSW Department of Education has removed it’s support for the Reading Recovery program following evidence that it doesn’t work and that fails to teach at-risk children how to read.
The evidence-based approach to teaching children to read
Evidence shows that children benefit from a systematic synthetic phonics approach to reading. That is, teaching children the connection between phonemes (sounds) and graphemes (letters) explicitly, teaching the skills to blend phonemes to form words, segmenting and manipulating phonemes within words. When children receive good teaching of phonics they will have the skills needed to read new words and become confident and fluent readers.
At Brilliant Star Speech Pathology, we are trained in Sounds-Write, an evidence-based phonics program teaching children to read. If you think your child may be struggling to read, or if you’re a school wishing to run the program in your school, get in touch to find out more about our services.