Understanding how sounds are connected to print
In an English alphabetic system, the individual letters on the page are abstract and meaningless, in and of themselves. They must eventually be linked to equally abstract sounds called phonemes, blended together and pronounced as words, where meaning is finally realized.
To learn to read English, the child must figure out the relationship between sounds and letters. Thus, the beginning reader must learn the connections between the approximately 44 sounds of spoken English (the phonemes), and the 26 letters of the alphabet.
What our NICHD research has taught us is that in order for a beginning reader to learn how to connect or translate printed symbols (letters and letter patterns) into sound, the would-be reader must understand that our speech can be segmented or broken into small sounds (phoneme awareness) and that the segmented units of speech can be represented by printed forms (phonics). This understanding that written spellings systematically represent the phonemes of spoken words (termed the alphabetic principle) is absolutely necessary for the development of accurate and rapid word reading skills.
Why are phoneme awareness and the development of the alphabetic principle so critical for the beginning reader? Because if children cannot perceive the sounds in spoken words – for example, if they cannot “hear” the at sound in fat and cat and perceive that the difference lies in the first sound, they will have difficulty decoding or “sounding out” words in a rapid and accurate fashion.
This awareness of the sound structure of our language seems so easy and commonplace that we take it for granted. But many children do not develop phoneme awareness, and for some interesting reasons that we are now beginning to understand.
From the NICHD studies that were initiated in 1965 to understand how the reading process develops, we now have strong evidence that it is not the ear that understands that a spoken word like cat is divided into three sounds and that these discrete sounds can be linked to the letters C-A-T.
Rather, we know it is the language systems in the brain that performs this function. In some youngsters, the brain seems to have an easy time processing this type of information.
However, in many children that skill is only learned with difficulty, and thus must be taught directly, explicitly, and by a well-prepared and informed teacher.
It also has become clear that the development of these critical early reading-related skills, such as phoneme awareness and phonics, are fostered when children are read to at home during the preschool years, when they learn their letter and number names, and when they are introduced at very early ages to concepts of print and literacy activities.
Does this mean that children who have a difficulty understanding that spoken words are composed of discrete individual sounds that can be linked to letters suffer from brain dysfunction or damage? Not at all.
It simply means that the neural systems that perceive the phonemes in our language are less efficient in these children than in other children.
The development of phoneme awareness, the development of an understanding of the alphabetic principle, and the translation of these skills to the application of phonics in reading and spelling words are non-negotiable beginning reading skills that all children must master in order to understand what they read and to learn from their reading sessions.
But the development of phoneme awareness and phonics, while necessary, are not sufficient for learning to read the English language so that meaning can be derived from print. In addition to learning how to “sound out” new and/or unfamiliar words, the beginning reader must eventually become proficient in reading at a fast pace larger units of print such as syllable patterns, meaningful roots, suffixes, and whole words.
The development of reading fluency
While the ability to read words accurately is a necessary skill in learning to read, the speed at which this is done becomes a critical factor in ensuring that children understand what they read.
Children vary in the amount of practice that is required for fluency and automaticity in reading to occur. Some youngsters can read a word only once to recognize it again with greater speed; others need 20 or more exposures. The average child needs between four and 14 exposures to automatize the recognition of a new word.
Therefore, in learning to read, it is vital that children read a large amount of text at their independent reading level (with 95 percent accuracy), and that the text provide specific practice in the skills being learned.
It is also important to note that spelling instruction fosters the development of reading fluency. Through spelling instruction, youngsters receive many examples of how letters represent the sounds of speech and also alert the young reader to the fact that written words are made up of larger units of print (like syllables). This insight lets the developing reader know that word recognition can be accomplished by reading words in larger “chunks” rather than letter-by-letter.
Constructing meaning from print
The ultimate goal of reading instruction is to enable children to understand what they read.
The ability to understand what is read appears to be based on several factors. Children who comprehend well, seem to be able to activate their relevant background knowledge when reading – that is, they can relate what is on the page to what they already know.
Good comprehenders also must have good vocabularies, since it is extremely difficult to understand something you can not define.
Good comprehenders also have a knack for summarizing, predicting, and clarifying what they have read, and they frequently use questions to guide their understanding.
Good comprehenders are also facile in employing the sentence structure within the text to enhance their comprehension.
In general, if children can read the words on a page accurately and fluently, they will be able to construct meaning at two levels. At the first level, literal understanding is achieved. However, constructing meaning requires far more than literal comprehension.
The children must eventually actively guide themselves through text by asking questions like, “Why am I reading this and how does this information relate to my reasons for doing so?,” “What is the author’s point of view?,” “Do I understand what the author is saying and why?,” “Is the text internally consistent?,” and so on. It is this second level of comprehension that leads readers to reflective, purposeful understanding of the meaning of what they have read.
The development of reading comprehension skills, like the development of phoneme awareness, phonics, and reading fluency, needs to be fostered by highly trained teachers.
Recent research shows that the teacher must arrange for opportunities for students to discuss the highlights of what they have read and any difficulties they have had when reading.
Children’s reflections on what they have read can also be directly fostered through instruction in comprehension strategies. These sorts of discussions and activities should be conducted throughout a range of literacy genres, both fiction and nonfiction, and should be a regular component of the language arts curriculum throughout the children’s school years.
Other factors that influence learning to read
Our research continues to converge on the following findings.
Good readers are phonemically aware, understand the alphabetic principle, can apply these skills to the development and application of phonics skills when reading and spelling words, and can accomplish these applications in a fluent and accurate manner.
Given the ability to rapidly and automatically decode and recognize words, good readers bring strong vocabularies and good syntactic and grammatical skills to the reading comprehension process, and actively relate what is being read to their own background knowledge via a variety of strategies.
But what factors can provide a firm foundation for these skills to develop?
It is clear from research on emerging literacy that learning to read is a relatively lengthy process that begins very early in development and clearly before children enter formal schooling.
Children who receive stimulating literacy experiences from birth onward appear to have an edge when it comes to vocabulary development, understanding the goals of reading, and developing an awareness of print and literacy concepts.
Children who are read to frequently at very young ages become exposed in interesting and exciting ways to the sounds of our language, to the concept of rhyming, and to other word and language play activities that serve to provide the foundation for the development of phoneme awareness.
As children are exposed to literacy activities at young ages, they begin to recognize and discriminate letters. Without a doubt, children who have learned to recognize and print most letters as preschoolers will have less to learn upon school entry. The learning of letter names is also important because the names of many letters contain the sounds they most often represent, thus orienting youngsters early to the alphabetic principle or how letters and sounds connect.
Ultimately, children’s ability to understand what they are reading is inextricably linked to their background knowledge. Very young children who are provided opportunities to learn, think, and talk about new areas of knowledge will gain much from the reading process. With understanding comes the clear desire to read more and to read frequently, ensuring that reading practice takes place.