If you have a struggling reader, you might wonder how to help them, when to help them and why they are in fact struggling. The following is a roadmap for educators of struggling readers. Learning phonics is important. However, learning phonics is not enough.
Learning to read is not natural
Kids don’t learn to read automatically. Think of our writing system as a code. Teachers must give the child the key to the code. Since beginning readers are like cryptographers, we must guide them and give them access to the code in a clear, systematic way. Learning phonics allows kids to learn the code.
Decoding is not correlated with intelligence
About 30% of children will struggle to learn how to read. If a child falls behind, he simply needs good, research-based instruction. Kids (and even adults) use ease of decoding as a proxy for intelligence. It is not. There is no correlation between intelligence and decoding. Learning phonics can skyrocket struggling readers to the next level.
Learning phonics requires explicit instruction
Explicit means the child doesn’t have to guess the code. Phonics sounds are introduced clearly, placed on a sound chart, sound cards and woven into instruction.
Learning phonics requires systematic instruction
Systematic means phonics sounds are introduced slowly, about 1-2 new units at a time. The child is not bombarded with the code at once, or even given a substantial amount of the code. He must develop familiarity with each new piece of the code before learning more.
Learning phonics requires decodable texts
Decodable texts are specially designed to allow the child to practice the piece of the code he knows. For example, if a child knows the code up to the ee/ea units, he might read a sentence like, “The eel swam to the reef.” Since the child’s reading knowledge is incremental, decodable texts are too. For a sample decodable text, check out: Free ee/ea Phonics Book
Whole language is ineffective
Whole language is a method that expects kids to memorize whole words rather than read sound-by-sound. Kids memorize long lists of reading and spelling words. Kids must “get it.” Whole language advocates argue that learning phonics is fruitless and ineffective.
California implemented whole language in 1987. State reading scores plummeted so low California had the lowest reading scores in the nation. Functional illiteracy soared to 60%. Given the dire reading rates of California’s school children, lawmakers mandated phonics. Unfortunately, whole language remains a strong, powerful influence in nearly all schools under the guise of “balanced-literacy.”
Balanced literacy is whole language and sloppy phonics
Balanced literacy programs admit learning phonics is important. However, they teach phonics in a sloppy, unsystematic way. They are very popular, because they have expert marketing teams that sell the very tantalizing idea that learning to read is easy.
Get a reading intervention when the child falls behind
Many parents hear that it’s okay to wait and see if the child catches on to reading. The wait and see approach puts children at risk for The Matthew Effect in Reading. Without a reading intervention, the good readers get better and the poor readers get worse. In addition, as the years pass, the gap between good readers and poor readers widens.
If a child reads late, the child will lose opportunities to build phonemic awareness, decoding skills, fluency, vocabulary and syntactic knowledge. The child loses confidence and won’t read for fun. A leveled reading intervention can break this negative cycle. A reading intervention must emphasis learning phonics in an explicit, systematic way that uses decodable texts.
But Swedish children learn to read late and they’re some of the best readers in the world
Have you heard about how Swedish kids are great readers?
Of course they are! Their language has a simple sound-to-sound correspondence. Their code is easier. Swedish parents send their kids to school at age 7 and their children learn to read in a matter of months. Literally, Swedish kids learn to read by December of that first school year. Swedish kids aren’t better readers because they learn to read at age 7. They’re better readers because Swedish is so transparent.
In contrast, English readers learn the code by age 9. English spelling is complex. It is one of the hardest languages to learn how to read. Kids in English-speaking countries take 4 years to learn how to read. Ideally, kids incrementally crack the code in K-3. Reading late can put English-speaking kids really far behind on so many literacy measures.
For more information on learning phonics check out:
If you’d like decodable books, check out The Printable Phonics Books Library.