The main source of information in this booklet is the report of the National Reading Panel, Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. This report, along with the other reports and books listed at the back of this booklet, offer more research-based information about how children learn to read and write.
From several decades of research, we have learned a lot about how children learn to read and write. This research tells us that to become more skilled and confident readers over time, children need lots of opportunities to:
- build spoken language by talking and listening
- learn about print and books
- learn about the sounds of spoken language (this is called phonological awareness)
- learn about the letters of the alphabet
- be read to and read on their own
- learn and use letter-sound relationships (this is called phonics) and be able to recognize words when they see them
- spell and write
- develop their ability to read quickly and naturally (this is called fluency)
- learn new words and build their knowledge of what words mean (this is called vocabulary)
- build their knowledge of the world
- build their ability to understand what they read (this is called comprehension)
Talking and listening
Remember the old saying "children should be seen and not heard"? Research tells us that for children to become readers, they should listen and talk a lot.
By the time children are one year old, they already know a lot about spoken language--talking and listening. They recognize some speech sounds. They know which sounds make the words that are important to them. They begin to imitate those sounds. Children learn all of this by listening to family members talk. Even "baby talk," which exaggerates the sounds and rhythms of words, makes a contribution to children's ability to understand language. Children who do not hear a lot of talk and who are not encouraged to talk themselves often have problems learning to read.
Print and books
Even though books don't come with operating instructions, we use them in certain ways. We hold them right side-up. We turn the pages one at a time. We read lines of words starting at the left and moving to the right. Knowing about print and books and how they are used is called print awareness.
Print awareness is an important part of knowing how to read and write. Children who know about print understand that the words they see in print and the words they speak and hear are related. They will use and see print a lot, even when they're young--on signs and billboards, in alphabet books and storybooks, and in labels, magazines, and newspapers. They see family members use print, and they learn that print is all around them and that it is used for different purposes.
Sounds in spoken language
Some words rhyme. Sentences are made up of separate words. Words have parts called syllables. The words bag, ball, and bug all begin with the same sound. When a child begins to notice and understand these things, he is developing phonological awareness--the ability to hear and work with the sounds of spoken language.
When a child also begins to understand that spoken words are made up of separate, small sounds, he is developing phonemic awareness. These individual sounds in spoken language are called phonemes. For example, the word big has three phonemes, /b/, /i/, and /g/.*
Children who have phonemic awareness can take spoken words apart sound by sound (the name for this is segmentation) and put together sounds to make words (the name for this is blending). Research shows that how easily children learn to read can depend on how much phonological and phonemic awareness they have.
* A letter between slash marks, /b/, shows the phoneme, or sound, that the letter represents, and not the name of the letter. For example, the letter b represents the sound /b/.
Singing the alphabet song is more than just a fun activity. Children who go to kindergarten already knowing the shapes and names of the letters of the alphabet, and how to write them, have a much easier time learning to read. Knowing the names and shapes of letters is sometimes called alphabetic knowledge.
Reading aloud to children has been called the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for success in reading. Reading aloud, with children participating actively, helps children learn new words, learn more about the world, learn about written language, and see the connection between words that are spoken and words that are written.
Phonics and word-study skills
Phonics instruction helps beginning readers see the relationships between the sounds of spoken language and the letters of written language. Understanding these relationships gives children a tool that they can use to recognize familiar words quickly and to figure out words they haven't seen before.
Word-study instruction is the step that follows phonics instruction. It helps older children learn to apply their phonics knowledge and knowledge of word parts (such as prefixes, suffixes, and root words) as they read and write words. Rapid word recognition means that children spend less time struggling over words and have more time getting meaning from what they read, which, of course, is the real purpose for reading.
Spelling and writing
Children learn more about how print works when they spell and write on their own. When they begin to write, children draw and scribble. Later, they use what they are learning about sounds and letters when they try to write words. This often is called invented, or developmental, spelling. Because invented spelling encourages children to think about the sounds in words and how the sounds are related to letters, it can help preschool and kindergarten children develop both as readers and writers. However, after kindergarten, children need well-organized, systematic lessons in spelling to help them become good spellers.
Fluency is the word for being able to read quickly and accurately. Fluent readers recognize words automatically. They are able to group words quickly to help them get the meaning of what they read. When fluent readers read aloud, they read smoothly and with expression. Their reading sounds natural, like speech. Readers who have not yet developed fluency read slowly, word by word. Sometimes, their oral reading is choppy and plodding. They may make a lot of mistakes.
Most beginning readers do not read fluently. However, by the end of first grade, children should be reading their grade level books fluently.
Vocabulary and knowledge of the world
Vocabulary is the name for words we must know in order to listen, speak, read, and write effectively. Time and again researchers have found strong connections between the size of children's vocabularies, how well they comprehend what they read, and how well they do in school.
Children who are poor readers often do not have the vocabulary knowledge they need to get meaning from what they read. Because reading is difficult for them, they cannot and do not read very much. As a result, they may not see new words in print often enough to learn them. Good readers read more, become better readers, and learn more words; poor readers read less, become poorer readers, and learn fewer words.
Children learn vocabulary in two ways: indirectly, by hearing and seeing words as they listen, talk, and read; and directly by parents and teachers teaching them the meanings of certain words.
Vocabulary and knowledge of the world are, of course, very closely tied together. Children who know something about the world are much better able to understand what they read about in school.
Comprehension means getting meaning from what we read. It is the heart of reading. Research shows that knowledge of letter-sound relationships and comprehension go hand-in-hand. If children can sound out the words, but don't understand what they are reading, they're not really reading.
Children can build their comprehension by learning to use mental plans, or strategies, to get meaning as they read. These strategies include using what they already know to make sense of what they read, making predictions, paying attention to the way a reading selection is organized, creating mental pictures, asking questions, and summarizing.