Phonics - The building blocks of reading skills

September 12, 2020

There is a saying that ‘Learning to read transforms lives’. Every parent and educator would subscribe to that view. Reading, unlike speech, is a complex cognitive process. Learning to speak is a relatively straight forward process. Children learn to talk by listening to adults and repeating sounds they hear regularly. A child-exposed to an environment rich in the spoken-language will automatically learn to speak. They develop speaking skills through the ‘serve and return’ patterns of conversations, even without any explicit instructions. Reading aloud exposes them to unique words, thereby building a robust vocabulary before they have learned to read.

Reading – An acquired skill

The same can not be said for reading, though. A child will not learn to read simply by exposure to printed matter. It is a learned skill that requires systematic instructions and years of practice. Before children learn to read, they have already developed spoken language skills and know the meaning of those spoken words. But reading is the cognitive ability of the child to decode the meaning of abstract symbols that letters are. Written words are a kind of code for spoken language, and learning to read is cracking that code. Once children learn to decode, they acquire the ability to access their knowledge from print.

Phonics – A systematic program to decode words

After decades of debate, a scientific consensus has emerged that children need systematic phonics instructions when they start learning to read. The research shows that understanding the relationship between letters and sounds is imperative when children start learning to read an alphabetic language like English and, phonics makes it possible. Teaching children to decode words through a systematic phonics program is the most reliable way to make them independent readers. A systematic phonics program explicitly teaches what sounds correspond to what letter patterns in an orderly manner. It methodically covers all the combinations. Teaching children to blend sounds to create words and then to segment words into their component sounds are hallmarks of a good reading program.

Reading, spelling & writing – Complete language skills

A sound understanding of phonics creates a foundation for building spelling and writing skills since all three are related. Reading is decoding, i.e., making sounds from letters. Spelling is encoding—that is, making letters from sounds. Writing is the decoding of sounds into written letters. Each skill reinforces the other.

At the same time, it is critical to recognize that in the English language, many commonly used words (such as one, eye, friend, said, etc.) don’t follow the spelling-to-sound relationship. An early reader can not read them by using phonics. The right approach to read such words is to, directly, learn their pronunciation through repeated use. Learning pronunciation of ‘sight words,’ along with a spelling-sound relationship, puts an early reader on the path to becoming an independent reader.

Of course, there is more to language skills than learning to sound out written words. The reader should comprehend what they are reading. Furthermore, developing complete language skills require reading fluency, vocabulary, and knowledge base for reading comprehension.

Leveraging Mathew’s Effect – The rich get richer

Gaining proficiency in skill as complex and demanding as reading requires persistent effort and practice. One factor that makes it imperative is Mathews Effect.

The Mathews Effect derives its name from a verse in the New Testament, which reads, “For unto every one that hath shall be given and he shall have abundance: but from him, that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath,”

It means advantages and disadvantages accumulate, so that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, or in the context of reading, a skilled reader gets better, and a less-skilled reader gets weaker.

There is evidence to suggest that early success in acquiring reading skills motivates them to read more, which makes them better readers and reading more enjoyable. It creates a virtuous self-perpetuating cycle. While the initial challenges in learning to read make the learner less motivated to read, curtailing their exposure to printed matter and reading practice. Growing exponentially over time, learning to read has profound consequences for the development of a wide range of cognitive capabilities.

Thus accumulative reading experiences of children, who master the spelling-to-sound code early, create positive feedback effects and open the gates to new learning opportunities.

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