There are a number of skills students need to master in order to read. Educators can break down the components of reading into subskills, and these subskills are the essence of k-2 literacy instruction. The most critical foundational skills in reading are: the alphabetic principle, concepts of print, phonemic awareness, phonics knowledge, sight words and fluency.
The alphabetic concept
Not every written language has a strict sound-symbol correlation. However, English, in contrast to written languages like traditional Chinese characters, has a relatively strict sound-symbol correlation. We can largely expect that a_ says aaaa as in hat, map, can, tap…etc. We can also expect that k makes the hard /k/ sound, oa says /oa/ as in boat, ee says /ee/ as in see… etc. There are about 44 consistent phonemes in English.
Kids learn the alphabetic principle when they understand that written words are composed of regular phonetic units, and we can use these units to read.
Concepts of print
Concepts of print include things like knowledge of the front of the book versus the back, awareness that we read left to right and top to bottom. Children usually learn concepts of print under 5 as parents read aloud to them. However, this by no means prepares kids for the work of decoding. To learn to read, kids need systematic phonics instruction, now called structured literacy.
This is the most crucial skill when you have a beginner. Kids need to know that words are made of phonemes, the smallest units of sounds. Kids need to be able to blend sounds together: c-aaaa-nnnn says “can,” for example. A struggling reader must practice blending words (without text) to learn to decode.
Blending is a simple activity that a parent or educator can do anywhere, since there is no text required. If you’re driving, you can say “Blend… ssss-p-oooo-t…” and your child will say “spot!” This activity is notoriously hard for dyslexic kids. Thus, you sometimes need to slow down. You can also work with objects, designating one object for each sound.
In addition to blending, kids need to practice segmenting. This is the opposite of blending. You say a word “spot” and ask the student to rip apart the sounds into ssss-p-oooo-t. Segmenting is a key skill in spelling.
In order to teach phonemic awareness accurately, educators need to know phonics and continuous versus noncontinuous sounds.
Phonics Sound Knowledge
There are about 44 phonemes or phonics sounds in English. Kids start off learning short vowels (a_ as in hat, e_ as in met, i_ as in hip, o_ as in hop, and u_ as in cup) and progress from there. We have outlined the full list of the Reading Elephant phonics books scope and sequence. This way, kids can learn phonics sounds as they move through the printable book series.
Kids should systematically learn phonics sounds, meaning they should learn them one at a time. They should be given time to practice each new phonics sound. Ideally, the educator would dedicate a few lessons to help the child master each new phonics sound. From there, the educator would weave the sound into nearly all future phonics lessons.
Every phonics book set or curriculum has a different scope and sequence. However, there is no “correct” order to introduce these sounds. Generally, however, the order goes short vowels, consonant digraphs, consonant blends, silent e, long vowels, r-controlled, ing/ed, ou/ow, au/aw, oi/_oy. These phonics sounds are the foundation of decoding.
Sight Words and Sound Tweaks
Kids need to learn to read and spell sight words. Sight words are words that break the phonetic code in some way. For example, “they” is a sight word. The “th” in “they” is regular. However, the “ey” in “they” is irregular. If we were to spell “they” phonetically, we would write thay. Thus, to help kids cope with sight words, educators need to explicitly introduce these words and explain that they require a sound tweak.
There’s some debate on whether or not kids need to memorize how to read sight words. Afterall, nearly all of them have regular components that can help kids crack them. What we do know is this: kids need to practice reading them in books. Reading Elephant phonics books are unique in that they introduce common sight words like would, could, their, said…etc.
Additionally, kids need to learn to spell sight words. This makes sight word flashcards necessary. They need to learn to spell them so they can write accurately. If kids can read over their own writing, they’ve no opportunity to revise. And revising is the essence of good writing skills.
The above skills help a child decode. Decoding is when a reader strings together the sounds to decipher the word. Young kids decode slowly, and the sound-by-sound reading is often audible. As we get older, decoding becomes so automatic, that we can no longer notice sound-by-sound reading.
However, that doesn’t mean our brains aren’t reading sound-by-sound. No matter how sophisticated your reading skills, your brain still rips apart phonemes and strings them together to read words. Expert readers just do this so quickly and effortlessly that they don’t notice.
When you see a child reading sound-by-sound slowly, they are doing nothing wrong. This slow, staccato like reading is a natural part in the learning to read process. As your student gains fluency, she will drop the staccato like reading.
Fluency is reading speed. Fluency is an important aspect of reading comprehension. It’s difficult to understand language that’s coming at us slowly. When we speak, we often talk at 125 words per minute. We’re not use t-oooo taaaalking ssssllllowlllly annnnnd it’s difffficult to unnnndersssstaaaannnnd ssssllllow language. When a child speeds up their correct words per minute, she can understand the text better. When you have a child reading 10 correct words per minute, of course they’re going to have difficulty understanding the story.
Some people place a lot of value on prosody, the ability to use the appropriate intonations and timing with phrases when reading. However, young kids are still trying to develop decoding skills. It takes quite a lot of practice for a young reader to read with proper intonation.
There are a lot of gimmicky fluency programs out there. However, there is no proven way to improve fluency other than to read widely and read a lot. Make sure your student is reading enough. That way, his fluency can develop.
If you’re looking for decodables to help your student build foundational skills in reading, check out our printable phonics books.