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What Parents Should Know About Reading Instruction

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Effective reading instruction includes five areas that must be addressed by third grade to successfully teach children to read. Those five areas are: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Before children are ready to read, they must become aware of the sound system we use in spoken language. Phonemic awareness is the ability to notice, think about and work with the individual sounds used in spoken words. Children demonstrate phonemic awareness in a variety of ways, including: Recognition of words that rhyme; recognition of which words have the same beginning letter or ending letter; isolation of the first or last sound in a word; breaking apart a word into its individual parts or sounds; and hearing the segments/sounds of a word and blending them together to form the whole word.

Phonemic awareness instruction typically begins in preschool and continues into kindergarten and first grade. Phonemic awareness improves children’s ability to read words. Phonemic awareness also improves comprehension through increased accuracy in reading and its consequent affect on the ability to focus on understanding the text being read. Good phonemic awareness skills also improve spelling. They help children understand the individual sounds that comprise words, break words into individual pieces, and use letters and sounds to spell in a predictable manner.

The lack of phonemic awareness by the age of five is the biggest indicator for reading failure. Solid phonemic awareness is essential for the next stages of reading development. If a student does not have this skill it is important to continue to work on and possibly consider consulting a professional to work on this skill.

Many tests that predict reading success focus primarily on phonemic awareness. This cannot be overlooked. Solid phonemic awareness is essential for the next stages of reading development. If a student does not have this skill is it important to continue to work on and possibly consider consulting a professional to work on this skill.

The goal of phonics instruction is to teach children the relationship between letters and the spoken language and letters and the written language. Knowing these relationships will help children break unfamiliar words down into smaller segments when reading. Sometimes this is called “breaking the code” or “decoding.”

Phonics instruction includes a systematic approach to teaching the letter-sound relationships of consonants and vowels in words using a clearly defined sequence. A solid phonics approach improves word recognition and spelling, significantly improves reading comprehension, and is essential for children who are having difficulty with learning to read or who are at risk for developing future reading difficulties (children with articulation or language disorders, children who have not developed phonemic awareness by age five).

Phonics instruction is already a part of many kindergarten and first grade classrooms. Children will not have the building blocks required before proceeding to the next stages of reading instruction without good phonemic awareness and phonics. Children who only memorize their spelling words and do not use the skills discussed to spell and read words may be in need of more extensive work with the phonemic awareness and phonic systems. Parents should consult a professional if their children are not exhibiting solid phonemic awareness skills by the end of kindergarten and good decoding skills (phonics) by the end of first grade.

Fluency is the ability to read accurately and quickly. To read fluently children must recognize words automatically. Fluent readers group words together quickly to gain meaning from what they read. They read aloud effortlessly and with expression. Readers who have not developed reading fluency read more slowly, often pausing to decode or sound out words. It is like they are reading the text word-by-word; it sounds choppy. Often readers with a poor phonemic awareness and phonic abilities are not fluent readers.

Techniques to assist children in becoming more fluent include:

  • Select a text that students can practice reading with few mistakes (Educators call this “90 percent accuracy”).
  • Reread text several times, practicing to improve the speed of reading.
  • Teachers and parents can engage students by reading aloud in a smooth manner with expression. Practicing this skill will help to reduce choppiness. Parents can easily do this by modeling and continuing to read with their children as they get older.

Good reading fluency is essential for reading comprehension. If a reader has to concentrate on sounding out the words, they have less energy to spend on the meaning of the text being read.

Vocabulary plays an important role in learning to read. The vocabulary of a child at age three is a good indicator of reading comprehension of a child in third grade. Having a solid vocabulary is essential. Readers cannot understand what they are reading without knowing what most of the words that are found in text mean. Children learn most words indirectly, meaning that they are not “taught” but learned through everyday experiences, such as conversations or through reading material with new words. Some words are taught directly. Essentially, the more we read to or have children engaged in reading and the more experiences and conversation a child has, the more opportunities we have to teach new words.

Comprehension is the ability to learn from text. It is the ability to gain meaning from what is being read. Without comprehension, children are not really “reading.” Many children are able to read more complicated texts than they can actually comprehend. It is important to engage children in text they can read with fluency and comprehend, though; this means we must sometimes engage them in text that is easier to read so we can learn or gain new information from that text.

Strategies to assist children with comprehension include:

  • Introduce new vocabulary found in text before reading and connect the text to children’s background knowledge or personal experiences.
  • Before reading, develop a list of questions to answer during the reading, which creates a purpose for reading and encourages children to monitor their comprehension.
  • Teach students to monitor their understanding of text as they read and correct any mistakes while they are reading to improve their understanding.
  • Use graphic organizers such as charts, maps, webs and graphs to help focus on the main concepts of the text and how concepts are related. These are helpful tools to visually represent ideas and assist students with their written responses to reading.
  • Identify the story structure. Story structure is helpful in retelling a story and can include the setting, characters, series of events in a story, or the outcomes of the story. Sometimes the structure includes a problem and solution. Children can use illustrations to help tell the story with pictures.
  • Summarize. Summarizing is the condensed version of the story that is described in text. When students summarize they are required to decide the most important aspects of the story and put it in their own words. Teaching summarizing helps students identify the main ideas, the connection between ideas, eliminate irrelevant information and remember what they have read.

When children have poor vocabulary and comprehension difficulties, a speech and language evaluation, perhaps in addition to an academic evaluation, is warranted to rule out any areas that may need to be addressed with speech therapy.

While there are no quick solutions for optimizing reading achievement, there is vast research that describes the most effective reading instruction including the five areas discussed above. In addition, many children need diagnostic teaching through direct instruction using a systematic, cumulative method that requires automaticity before moving up to the next level of instruction. At ACCESS, we recommend and use a variety of methods recognized by the International Dyslexia Association that we have found particularly helpful for remediation of reading disorders, including The DuBard Association Method®, Orton Gillingham and the Wilson Reading System. Others used in the community include The Spalding Method, The Barton Reading and Spelling System and Lindamood-Bell. No matter which method is used, the goal is to have children reading and writing well by third grade.

The most intensive reading instruction occurs in kindergarten, first and second grade. If your child is struggling, DO NOT WAIT. Seek help immediately. Reading is essential for a good solid education, and waiting to address decoding or comprehension difficulties until second or third grade can create years of academic struggle for a child.

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