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How Do Emerging Readers Learn?

wooden blocks spelling "read" and "phonics"

Sounding words out is the best way to read, right? Yes and no. Sounding out words is a critical literacy skill. It is also laborious to apply. Imagine if you were reading this paragraph by parsing out the sounds of each syllable. (Im-ag-ine if you were read-ing this par-a-graph by par-sing out the sounds of each syl-la-ble.) With your mind so focused on the sounds within the words, you have less working memory available to keep track of the meaning of what you have read. The choppiness of sounding out words would affect the fluency of your reading, which could, in turn, affect your comprehension.

Fluent readers recognize high frequency words by sight, which we’ve mapped to sounds in our minds. Essentially, we have memorized words. This speeds the process of reading and frees up brainpower (or cognitive resources, more formally) for understanding what we have read instead of decoding words. Memorizing words also makes it easier to approach words that do not follow typical phonetic rules, like “does” or “one.” You may have noticed that when your child works on reading and spelling, that he studies “sight words.” The goal of this activity is to build up that memory bank of high frequency words, which improves reading speed and accuracy. Children with reading-based learning disabilities sometimes use memorization as a compensatory strategy when sounding out words feels difficult. Some such readers have very large sight word vocabularies, large enough to conceal a learning disability or delay a diagnosis.

Emerging and fluent readers use hybrid strategies while decoding unfamiliar words too. A reader might sound out part of a word and then use cues from the rest of the text or from pictures to figure out the rest of the word. For early readers, who are first encountering difficult, multi-syllable words, this is an appropriate way to navigate challenges. For example, if a word starts with “s,” ends with “ing,” and is next to a picture of a bed, a child might reasonably guess that the word is “sleeping.” Fluent adult readers do this too. We might encounter challenging scientific terminology or a difficult-to-sound-out foreign place name when reading. By figuring out one or more syllables, we can then relate the word to something we have heard before, perhaps in a television or radio broadcast.

Of course, educated guesses can be wrong. This is why another important reading skill is self-monitoring; good readers are aware when something does not make sense, so they go back in the text to check for errors. When I work with children, one way I model effective self monitoring is by asking questions like, “Can you picture that?” or “Does that make sense?” when I hear a student make an error that is significant enough to effect comprehension. Sometimes these questions will prompt students to ask follow-up questions about unfamiliar vocabulary within the text or about whether they have skipped a word or a line.

So, while teachers and parents talk a lot about phonics, and many of us adults remember that catchy advertisement from the past, "Hooked on phonics worked for me!" there is more to reading than sounding out words. It is a fairly complex mental process. If you happen to notice that your child is using different strategies to read or that a reading instructor is encouraging those strategies, there is no reason to be concerned.


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