Kids start learning to read at multiple ages, and at different paces. However, most would agree that learning letter names and phonics as early as possible is advised. You’ll notice children are like ‘sponges’ at this age – they seem to pick up new information easily, and excitedly, too. The sooner they learn reading principles, the more likely they’ll be ready for school when it’s time to enter kindergarten. This is not to say that all kids are gifted, and should be reading on their own by age 5! But it does mean we can give them a head start, to make school easier, later.
But, the big question is, what is the best way to teach kids their word recognition skills? Let’s start with some basic explanations on why this topic is so important:
What is phonics? Why is it necessary to teach children? How does it relate to teaching word recognition?
If you grew up in Canada, you’ll probably remember the study of phonics.
In basic terms, phonics is simply teaching the sounds that letters make in a language. In English, many letters can make multiple sounds. For example, the letter “c” can sound like a “k” or an “s,” depending on the word. This can get confusing for anyone learning to read – whether they are in preschool, or learning English as a second language.
However, the problem gets worse. English is a combination multiple languages. Many of its modern words stem from historic versions of French, Latin, Norse and German. And, when Europeans conquered new lands and discovered new objects, of course, that led to the introduction of even more words, from even more languages.
Because of the ‘mixture’ of languages in English, it’s not just individual letter sounds that aren’t always consistent – it’s also segments of words that form certain sounds, and thus, produce correct spellings. But, most of the time, English has phonics patterns we can follow, even if they come in ‘groups’ of ‘exceptions.’ For example, the “Bossy R.”
So, it’s not impossible to use a phonics method to teach kids to read, or understand words. And, these letter combinations of sounds can build upon themselves. They can start with short and long vowels, then add consonants, and so on.
The many phonetic rules we get for writing and reading English give us labels like “graphemes” and “phonemes,” among others. We won’t get into those differences here – they can get quite technical. However, for an advanced understanding of teaching phonics to preschoolers, we recommend you look into them! All early childhood educators should know these identifications.
One way or another, kids need to learn the rules that make up sounds and meanings of letter combinations, which we call words. We would say it is near-impossible, if not outright impossible, to learn to read without the study of phonics. And, not learning to read early can make it harder to pick up literacy skills later. This can, of course, put a person at a disadvantage in society.
Pick your teaching strategy carefully; there’s a lot of debate in education about the best way to teach phonics
Producing literate societies starts in the early years. So how do we do it, as early childhood educators and parents? What is the best way to teach phonics to early childhood readers?
Different strategists advocate different methods for helping a child learn to read words out loud when they see them written down. Some like the “whole language,” “whole word” or “look and say” approach. This method asks a child to guess the word they see, based on the context of the story they are reading (even by looking at pictures), and the first letter of the word. However, there is no sequence of learning, or ‘built up’ learning involved – it uses present contexts and problems to teach a child word sounds, ‘in the moment.’
Proponents of the “whole word” strategy (and its various forms) believe that the child will memorize their recognition of words this way. It is also argued that this method makes reading more enjoyable, since kids learn the meaning of words simultaneously, too.
Others strongly disagree with the above approach. Instead, they believe the best way is with, “synthetic phonics” or “systematic phonics.” That is, the method of breaking down words into sounds, based on graphemes (written versions of letters). Then to teach pairs of letters that form sounds, and so on. So, when reading, a child is not necessarily taught to decipher the meaning of what they’re reading, but the sounds that ‘decode’ the word.
In this “synthetic” method, kids are asked to pronounce-by-sound even words that are not real, just to get them to learn phonics for phonics’ sake. The idea is that this principle of breaking down words into sounds, will then teach them to read any word, and interpret meanings of words over time.
The ‘fun’ part is when kids learn rhyming words, songs, games and so on.
And, there are still other strategies, though generally, the big debate is between the above two approaches, and their subsets, or ‘offshoots’ of instructional theories. The big question is: should children learn to ‘decode’ words by letter sounds (i.e. the study of phonics), or ‘guess and memorize’ them until they are repeatedly recognized?
To conclude: the best way to teach word recognition can include multiple strategies
In Canada, we generally emphasize corresponding sounds to letters, which is phonological awareness. This may be how you remember learning to read – by slowly sounding out words.
However, it is possible to use both methods when teaching young early learners to read, without relying too heavily on one or the other. This can take the form of ‘sight words.” For example, where a parent may use flash cards to show a child a simple word, like “cat.” This can be repeated until the child remembers that the formation of “c-a-t” always means “cat,” even if they don’t know that ‘c’ makes the ‘kuh’ sound, and so on.
But, a parent can also sing or recite the alphabet to their children, by including the sound of letters. For example, “A is for aaaa,” and “B is for buh-buh-buh.” They can also use flashcards to verbally explain to their child that just the letter “C” stands for “kuh-kuh-kaaat,” and so on with other letters.
We would say that any amount of exposure to letters and their sounds or meanings is a good start for school readiness. For example, even if your child has already learned to ‘sight read,’ that doesn’t mean they can’t later learn how letter sounds form the words they already recognize.
Children in preschool or daycare will learn their alphabet with various activities, and word associations. When they get to kindergarten, their reading skills will advance with professional teaching strategies, which will likely focus on systematic phonetics.