Beginning Reading. ERIC Digest.
by Fitzsimmons, Mary K.
How to teach reading has been the subject of much debate over the years.
One reason may be because, to the reading public, reading seems to be a
fairly easy and natural thing to do. However, this apparent ease masks
the very real and complex processes involved in the act of reading.
The truth is that learning to read is anything but natural. In fact,
it does not develop incidentally; it requires human intervention and context.
While skillful readers look quite natural in their reading, the act of
reading is complex and intentional; it requires bringing together a number
of complex actions involving the eyes, the brain, and the psychology of
the mind (e.g., motivation, interest, past experience) that do not occur
The two processes described here, phonological awareness and word recognition,
are essential to teaching beginning reading to children with diverse learning
and curricular needs, such as students with learning disabilities. For
these children, as for many children, learning to read is neither natural
nor easy. Also, research has made it clear that, for those students who
fall behind in reading, opportunities to advance or catch up diminish over
time. Therefore, the teaching of beginning reading is of supreme importance
and must be purposeful, strategic, and grounded in the methods proven effective
THE SOUND OF WORDS
The "unnatural" act of reading requires a beginning reader to make sense
of symbols on a page (i.e., to read words and interpret the meanings of
those words). In the case of English, these symbols are actually sequences
of letters that represent an alphabetic language, but more important, the
printed letters can also be translated into sounds. To translate letters
into sounds, a beginning reader should "enter school with a conscious awareness
of the sound structure of words and the ability to manipulate sounds in
words" (Smith, Simmons, & Kameenui, 1995, p. 2). This is referred to
as phonological awareness.
The research is clear and substantial, and the evidence is unequivocal:
Students who enter first grade with a wealth of phonological awareness
are more successful readers than those who do not.
Some examples of phonological awareness activities include asking a
child to respond to the following (Stanovich, 1994):
1. What would be left out if the /k/ sound were taken away from cat?
2. What do you have if you put these sounds together: /s/, /a/, /t/?
3. What is the first sound in rose?
In these activities, students do not see any written words or letters.
Instead, they listen and respond entirely on the basis of what they hear.
For some children, performing these activities may be difficult for
various reasons. For example, they may not be able to process the sounds
or phonemes that comprise a word. Other children simply cannot hear the
different sounds in a word, although the problem is not with hearing acuity,
but with the nature of phonemes. Phonemes are easily distorted, and the
boundaries for determining where one sound ends and the other begins are
not entirely clear to the ear and brain.
Phonological awareness activities build on and enhance children's experiences
with written language (e.g., print awareness) and spoken language (e.g.,
playing with words). These activities also set children's readiness and
foundation for reading, especially the reading of words. Children who have
been immersed in a literacy environment in which words, word games, rhyming,
and story reading are plentiful are more likely to understand what reading
is all about than those who have experienced an impoverished literacy environment.
A beginning reader with successful phonological awareness is ostensibly
ready for word recognition activities.
TEACHING TIPS: PHONOLOGICAL AWARENESS AND ALPHABETIC UNDERSTANDING
1. Make phonological awareness instruction explicit. Use conspicuous
strategies and make phonemes prominent to students by modeling specific
sounds and asking students to reproduce the sounds.
2. Ease into the complexities of phonological awareness. Begin with
easy words and progress to more difficult ones.
3. Provide support and assistance. The following research-based instructional
sequence summarizes the kind of scaffolding beginning readers need: (a)
model the sound or the strategy for making the sound; (b) have students
use the strategy to produce the sound; (c) repeat steps (a) and (b) using
several sounds for each type and level of difficulty; (d) prompt students
to use the strategy during guided practice; (e) use steps (a) through (d)
to introduce more difficult examples.
4. Develop a sequence and schedule, tailored to each child's needs,
for opportunities to apply and develop facility with sounds. Give this
schedule top priority among all classroom activities.
According to Juel (1991), children who are ready to begin reading words
have developed the following prerequisite skills. They understand that
(a) words can be spoken or written, (b) print corresponds to speech, and
(c) words are composed of phonemes (sounds). (This is phonological awareness.)
Beginning readers with these skills are also more likely to gain the understanding
that words are composed of individual letters and that these letters correspond
to sounds. This "mapping of print to speech" that establishes a clear link
between a letter and a sound is referred to as alphabetic understanding.
The research on word recognition is clear and widely accepted, and the
general finding is straightforward: Reading comprehension and other higher-order
reading activities depend on strong word recognition skills. These skills
include phonological decoding. This means that, to read words, a reader
must first see a word and then access its meaning in memory (Chard, Simmons
& Kameenui, 1995).
But to do this, the reader must do the following:
1. Translate a word into its phonological counterpart, (e.g., the word
sat is translated into the individual phonemes (/s/, /a/, and /t/).
2. Remember the correct sequence of sounds.
3. Blend the sounds together.
4. Search his or her memory for a real word that matches the string
of sounds (/s/, /a/, and /t/).
Skillful readers do this so automatically and rapidly that it looks
like the natural reading of whole words and not the sequential translation
of letters into sounds and sounds into words. Mastering the prerequisites
for word recognition may be enough for many children to make the link between
the written word and its meaning with little guidance. For some children,
however, more explicit teaching of word recognition is necessary.
Beginning reading is the solid foundation on which almost all subsequent
learning takes place. All children need this foundation, and research has
shown the way to building it for students with diverse needs and abilities.
TEACHING TIPS: READING WORDS
1. Develop explicit awareness of the connection between sounds and letters
and sounds and words: Teach letter-sound correspondence by presenting the
letter and modeling the sound. Model the sounds of the word, then blend
the sounds together and say the word.
2. Attend to (a) the sequence in which letter-sound correspondences
are taught; (b) the speed with which the student moves from sounding out
to blending words to reading connected text; and (c) the size and familiarity
of the words.
3. Support learning by modeling new sounds and words, correcting errors
promptly and explicitly, and sequencing reading tasks from easy to more
4. Schedule opportunities to practice and review each task, according
to the child's needs, and give them top priority.
Chard, D. J., Simmons, D. C., & Kameenui, E. J. (February, 1995).
Word Recognition: Curricular and Instructional Implications for Diverse
Learners. (Technical Report No. 16). Eugene: National Center to Improve
the Tools of Educators, University of Oregon.
Juel, C. (1991). Beginning Reading. In R. Barr, M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal,
& P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research. (V 2, pp. 759-788).
New York: Longman.
Smith, S. B., Simmons, D. C. & Kameenui, E. J. (February, 1995).
Synthesis of Research on Phonological Awareness: Principles and Implications
for Reading Acquisition. (Technical Report No. 21). Eugene: National Center
to Improve the Tools of Educators, University of Oregon.
Stanovich, K. E. (1994). Romance and Reality. The Reading Teacher, 47,
Based on "Shakespeare and Beginning Reading: The Readiness Is All'"
by Edward J. Kameenui in "From the ERIC Clearinghouse," TEACHING Exceptional
Children, Winter 1996, pages 77-81.