The teacher told Wendy that she simply needed to read aloud to her son, Jackson. He was in second grade and he had not developed decoding skills. When Jackson came across uncommon words, he used the first letter to guess. Oftentimes, if the book was new (one he hadn’t memorized) the sentences sounded like a word scramble: Henry (?) Harry (?) or is it Helen(?) went to the park (?) picnic (?) no it’s play right? Wendy thought, “But I’ve read to him since he was a baby.” The teacher didn’t want to say, “read aloud to him,” but such advice was standard protocol at the school.
When Wendy saw her son read, she noticed he was guessing. He hadn’t developed decoding skills. Though the school told her to “read aloud to him” reading aloud to a child does NOT progress decoding skills.
What are decoding skills?
Language is a code. Early readers are trying to decrypt or unlock that code. Effective reading programs teach beginning readers the code piece by piece, starting with the simplest, most common part of the code.
Decoding involves sounding out words. Essentially, if a child can decode, he can unlock words and read them sound-by-sound.
With decoding skills, a child can read words he’s never seen before. He can even read words he’s never heard before. Maybe he’s never heard “sap,” but with sound-by-sound reading skills he can unlock a brand new word.
Decoding skills are the foundation of reading
Decoding skills are critical for reading success. Early on, readers decode slowly as they must say each sound and blend the word. After several years of practice, kids begin to decode faster. Soon, the audible sound-by-sound reading melts away. Eventually, kids utter the entire word in one utterance.
For expert readers, it might appear that we don’t decode. However, this is false. Every single reader decodes, even expert readers. The brain first processes words in the letterbox area, ripping words apart, deconstructing them and then reconstructing them to identify the word. This process becomes so rapid that expert readers hardly believe they use decoding skills (from Reading in the Brain, Dehaene, 2009).
The magic of decoding quickly is similar to how rapidly the brain fills in information in your blind spot. Imagine if you didn’t know about the blind spot. Would you believe that a piece of the world you see is fake? Your brain fills in your blind spot so quickly, so instantaneously, you never think, “huh, a piece of the world I see is not real.” It’s just my brain painting in the world like an artist.
Expert readers might believe they don’t decode. But they do. Their brains are just decoding so instantaneously it appears that they’re reading whole words.
Decoding skills are at the foundation of reading. For K-2 readers, most of instruction needs to involve progressing a child’s decoding skills.
Signs a child struggles with decoding
When Jackson read, he often guessed based on the first letter of the word. Jackson had not been taught decoding skills. Here are some signs that a child struggles with decoding:
-guesses at words based on first letter
-guesses based on context
-uses picture for help
-tries to read teacher’s lips
-struggles blending all the sounds together
-struggles segmenting words (ex. Teacher: What sounds are in cat? Student: c-a-d)
-goes off-script (will start making up words in a story)
Reading aloud to a child will not teach decoding skills
It is widely known that reading aloud to a child is extremely beneficial, as it can improve his language development. Reading to a child can expand his vocabulary, and expose him to words like “scowl,” “bellow” and “flurry”—words we rarely use in speech. The language in print is far more complex than speech. Therefore, reading to a child can expose him to complicated syntax and help him bear the cognitive load of long sentences and in-depth thoughts.
“Read aloud to him” is common, but erroneous, advice
But, reading aloud to a child will not teach him to decode. This means, in the K-3 years, all that reading aloud that mom and dad did matters little. In K-3, a child must learn decoding skills, and the child is dependent on the school to acquire this skill set.
A child’s large vocabulary can help him only in grades 4 and beyond, AFTER he already knows how to decode. Think about it: if you couldn’t even decode “benevolent,” is it helpful that you know what it means? Of course not. If you can’t decode the story, you can’t understand the story. Without decoding skills, a child can never reach the ultimate goal of comprehending what he reads.
The most common response I hear from parents of struggling readers is:
I don’t get it. I read to him all the time all throughout the day. We have tons of books, a bookshelf full of books plus two baskets for him. I took him to the library all the time. We went to story time every week. We checked out books. Not to mention that I sang too.
Teaching a child to decode does not involve reading aloud to him. Teaching decoding skills is very different from enriching a child’s vocabulary. Reading to a child is incredibly important, but this message that it’s “important,” has become conflated and distorted. Now, many people believe reading to a struggling reader can help him decode. This is not so. In fact, reading aloud to a child and expecting him to “catch on” can cause him to fall further.
If a child experiences reading failure look to instructional failure
Many educators look to good readers for guidance in their teaching practice. Surely, if they’re teaching some kids how to read, they must be doing something right? Possibly. However, there are some kids that will learn to decode no matter who teaches them or what curriculum is used. These kids are largely insulated from the effects of poor reading practices.
[However, even these kids benefit from explicit, systematic phonics instruction. Why? If they don’t receive it, they’ll become atrocious spellers.]
It is not useful to look to the kids who learn to read in spite of poor teaching practices. Yet, some good, introspective teachers look to the 30% of kids that are behind, perhaps really behind and think… “Hmmm…I have no idea how to help these kids. They’re very bright kids. What have I done wrong?”
Many Teachers want to Implement Research-Based Reading Instruction
Intuitively, the teacher knows reading aloud to the child will not solve his decoding difficulties. Some teachers feel cheated from their graduate school education programs wherein they were fed belief systems rather than real research-based practical reading methods. In graduate education programs, they heard nonsense like the following (this includes me):
“We should let kids read quality literature so they can experience the great joy of reading. Teach them whole-word reading, let them absorb meaning… it’s a glorious way to teach kids to read.”
Problem is, the above suggestions sound glorious until you actually step into the classroom and fail 30-40% of kids. Perhaps more. It’s glorious until that very bright kid who has a rich vocabulary—you swear he knows twice as many words than you did at that age—and that child is fully convinced he’s dumb. It’s glorious until another child—who’d always dreamed of being a firefighter—nervously brings up the question, “Do firefighters need to know how to read?” Furthermore, it’s glorious until several parents approach you and say, “You know Henrietta sobs every morning before school. She’s terrified of being asked to read in front of her peers.”
Some teachers know intuitively that something is off. Yet, they’re bound to the ineffective “balanced-literacy” reading program at school. “Balanced literacy” is code for teaching decoding skills sloppily, if at all. “Balanced-literacy” is an off-shoot of whole language, a methodology that neglected to teach decoding skills entirely.
Whole language basically means teaching kids to guess based off context, pictures and the first letter of the word. When whole language was at it’s height, literacy rates were embarrassingly low. For the unfortunate kids who received a pure whole language curriculum in CA, illiteracy rates reached 60%. A truly shameful rate for a state with the eighth richest economy in the world. A shameful rate for a first world nation with an alphabetic language.
The real reason they tell you to read aloud to your struggling decoder
Here’s what your struggling readers school will never say:
I’m sorry we failed to teach your student to read. She’s a very bright kid. We used a program that failed her. Though the teacher brought up the problem, we didn’t provide the teacher with effective reading intervention training and explicit curricula and phonics books. It’s our fault.
Schools are afraid to admit fault because they’re terrified of getting sued. We all know schools are on a strict budget. Thus, schools are afraid of leaking money out of their limited coffers. When a child doesn’t learn decoding skills, schools don’t want to take the blame.
Since taking the blame can entangle the school in legal problems, they make suggestions that lay the blame on the child or the parent (usually the mom). One of these suggestions is that the parent didn’t read enough to the child. In another post, I outlined some of the many false reasons people claim a child is behind in reading. That a parent didn’t read enough to the child is one of the most absurd, ubiquitous reasons. Schools may be so invested in the idea that it’s not their fault that they really come to believe their suggestion.
When will we stop telling parents of struggling readers to “read aloud to your child?”
The research says reading aloud to a child does not improve decoding skills
Timothy Shanahan, a professor, reading researcher and advocate for research-based instruction wrote on Shanahan on Literacy:
- “Research is clear that the vast majority of kids in K-2 who suffer from reading problems will tend to have difficulties with skills like phonemic awareness, decoding, high-frequency words, and oral reading fluency. (There are definitely other important reading skills; those just don’t matter much early on.)
- Research is also clear that reading to kids—whatever its benefits—has little or no impact on the development of any of these skills that are so prominent in the early grades. (For the most part, reading to kids improves their knowledge of vocabulary word meanings—the lack of which doesn’t disrupt early reading much because such texts only use limited numbers of words and depend heavily on words known to be in kids’ early oral vocabularies).
- Research on having parents read to school age children has not found positive reading gains to result from the practice (Shanahan, 2017).”
If you’re interested in Shanahan’s article, check out: Time to Tell Parents the Truth about Helping Their Kids with Reading.
How to improve decoding skills
The National Reading Panel (NRP) was a meta-analysis of over 1,000 reading studies. To date, it is the most comprehensive look at reading research.
In reading research, there are many problems, as professors in education departments think they can publish anecdotes, cases without control groups, and short-term studies. As a result, they often conduct faulty research without paying any attention to what makes a valid study. This is why there’s so much reading “research” that says whole language instruction works.
In the US, leaders wanted to find out what reading methods really worked. Congress decided to fund the NRP, a group of community leaders that tediously went through all the reading research. They followed basic standards for validity and reliability. They threw out studies that didn’t have control groups, were too short-term to identify what causes lasting progress, and of course anecdotes.
The NRP (2000) only analyzed studies with scientific merit. Here’s some of what they found:
Skill set #1- Phonemic Awareness
Kids benefit from phonemic awareness instruction. Phonemic awareness includes activities that allow children to play with sounds. They found that phonemic awareness activities work best when they’re simple, and allow kids to rhyme, manipulate and segment sounds. Phonemic awareness provides a foundation for decoding skills.
“Results of the meta-analysis showed that teaching children to manipulate the sounds in language helps them learn to read (NRP, 2000, pg. 2-5).”
Skill set #2-Phonics
Explicit, systematic phonics instruction works best. Quality phonics instruction provides a foundation for decoding skills too.
“Findings provided solid support for the conclusion that systematic phonics instruction makes a more significant contribution to children’s growth in reading than do alternative programs providing unsystematic or no phonics instruction (NRP, 2000, pg. 2-132).”
Skill set #3-Decoding skills
Sound-by-sound reading allows kids to unlock a vast number of words. In contrast, whole language or “guessing” methods result in lower reading scores.
(Blachman et al., (1999); Brown & Felton, 1990; Torgesen et al., 1999)… See Table 4 (Appendix E). This suggests that systematic phonics instruction should extend from kindergarten to 2nd grade (NRP, 200, pg. 2-137)
Practice with Decodable Texts
How do kids practice the above skills? With decodable texts, like the ones offered at Reading Elephant. Decodable texts use limited vocabulary as to allow kids to practice their current phonics knowledge. As a child’s knowledge builds, decodable texts begin to incorporate more and more words.
The intent of providing books that match children’s letter-sound knowledge is to enable them to experience success in decoding words that follow the patterns they know. (NRP, 2000, 2-137).
Decodable texts allow kids to feel successful as they read. They can read at a high accuracy rate. If a child’s accuracy rate is low, they’ll get frustrated, lose focus and identify as a failure. It’s critical to level texts.
Imagine that a child only knows short a and letter sounds. Thus, he can only read words like: ran, sat, bat, fan, man. The teacher gives him a book with the following text:
Jacob went to the farmer’s market and bought fresh bread, apples and a pumpkin.
In the above text, this child would not be able to read a single word. Maybe he could read “a” and “to” by sight. In this situation, has the child failed? Or, has the school failed? A child that only knows short a and letter sounds can successfully read a decodable text like the following:
Decodable texts allow young readers to experience success. Imagine sitting down to read a book and you couldn’t read most of the words. Parents often talk about how frustrating reading time is. Yet, when we look at the book the child is reading, he can only read 50% or fewer of the words accurately, an incredibly low rate. If you read 50% of words accurately you too would throw the book into the air, feel like a failure and run at the mention of reading.
Guide to improving your students decoding skills
-Focus on sound-by-sound reading.
-If the child misses a word, highlight the sound he missed. Ask him to say the miscued sound and read the word again.
-Hold continuous sounds.
-Clip stop sounds
-Give your student phonics books (also called decodable texts)
For decodable text, check out: The Printable Phonics Books Library.