Learning to Read - When and How?
One of the most important skills a person must acquire to succeed in life is reading. There's no doubt about it, and there's no arguing against the fact that being unable to read will lead to a life of hardship, poverty, no skills, and diminished opportunities. The ability to read, or decode and understand printed text, is critical in some of the most ordinary everyday tasks such as: reading a food label; reading street names and road signs; reading billboards, emails, books, magazines, or even restaurant menus. Printed text is all around us, there is no avoiding it, and the best way to learn to read is starting at a young age as children.
So how do you teach children to read at an early age?
Of course, most children begin to pick up some simple and very basic reading skills once they start kindergarten / grade one, and progress from there. Because of this, most parents have come to accept the fact that their children would start learning to read once they start school, and assume that the reading program taught at the school is effective at teaching their children to read. Unfortunately, how well a child learns to read will depend on factors such as the method and technique beings used, and also depends on the experience, knowledge, and ability of the teacher.
Wouldn't it be nice if all schools used effective teaching methods and reading programs, or if all teachers were created equal in their abilities to teach well? If that were the case, then over 30 million adults in the US would not be functionally illiterate, nor would a third of all grade 4 children be unable to achieve basic reading competencies.
Best Ways to Teach Children to Read
The whole word (or look and say) approach is a method of teaching reading where children are taught to read printed text without analysis of the sub-parts of the words - the child simply learns to sight read, memorize word configurations, and pronounce a word as a single unit. The "whole word" way of teaching children to read has failed and is still failing... miserably.
If the look and say approach is not the right way to teach children to read, then what is? Phonics, synthetic phonics, and helping children develop phonemic awareness. This approach takes on a much more analytical and methodical approach to learning reading where children are taught letter names and letter sounds, and they are taught to connect the sounds of a word to form the complete word.
This brings forward a case of "memorizing words" (look and say) versus "decoding words" (phonics and phonemic awareness). What makes more sense to you: to memorize thousands of words as if they were pictures with distinct shapes, or to understand the basic building blocks of English and understanding the keen relationships between phonemes and words? This is a case of having to memorize thousands of words versus having to learn and master the 44 different phonemes of English. There are roughly around 44 phonemes in English, but I've seen some lists with around 47 to 50. Phonemes are the smallest units of sound, and they combine and link together to form the words we speak.
With the synthetic phonics and phonemic awareness method of teaching, children as young as 2 or 3 years old can learn to read effectively. This is a superb way of teaching children to read by developing a keen understanding of the most basic building blocks of the English language. It's a way of teaching young children to understand how letters produce sounds, how the sounds connect to form words, and how the words are represented by the printed text that they see.
Children who learn to read at a young age through phonics and developing phonemic awareness go on to be superb, fluent, and efficient readers. They learn to decode and read words quickly, effortlessly, and accurately. With the right approach and methods to teach reading, children can develop reading abilities that are years ahead of what's expected of them. We can highlight this with our own child where our daughter at 4 years 2 months old was reading at a grade 3 level.