You have a talented, smart child. You’ve read to her since she was a baby. Children’s books with fringed edges are in boxes around your house. Your child has both brains and a good environment. You’ve sent her off to school expecting educators to teach her how to read. Yet, she’s struggling quite a lot. You wonder, “My first grader is struggling with reading. Why is that?”
Many parents find themselves in this situation. The reading research is conclusive: children need explicit, systematic phonics instruction. Instead, many schools are teaching kids to guess at the words using pictures, context, and the first letter. This guessing method doesn’t work and leaves many talented children unable to read.
To obfuscate things for parents, schools often teach phonics, albeit sloppily. Thus, parents have trouble identifying the method of instruction. If you ask the parent how their child is being taught to read, they’ll often vaguely reply with something like “context clues and phonics.”
When your child is struggling to read, you need to embark on a journey of education. Many parents of struggling readers start trying to figure out how children acquire reading. Unfortunately, parents have little time. It’s stressful to delve into a field that you never intended to study. You already have a full life with lots of things to juggle.
This post is designed to help you understand why your child is struggling in reading.
I’ll outline the reasons why schools often fail to teach using the science of reading. The science of reading is a body of research that unequivocal shows that children learn to read best with a structured phonics approach.
Shockingly, teachers of struggling readers find themselves in a similar situation as parents of struggling readers: they don’t know the science of reading. They went to graduate schools of education where professors told them kids should guess at the words with pictures, context and the first letter. When this doesn’t work (for many children) in the real word, teachers also have to embark on a journey of education.
Reading Elephant offers step-by-step printable phonics books in our shop.
Kids need explicit phonics.
Explicit phonics takes all the guesswork out of the most common phonics sounds.
Teachers explicitly introduce the most common phonics sounds. They may say, “ee says /ee/ as in tree, bee and flee.” or “_ay says /ay/ as in day, bay and hay.” In other words, the teacher tells the children the correct sound of each grapheme (spelling unit). That way, when the child reads a book, he doesn’t have to guess at the words. Instead, he can sound the words out.
This is in contrast to implicit phonics, where children are taught the phonics sounds as they come up in reading. The teacher doesn’t directly teach the child the phonics sounds. Instead, the child misses a word in a book. Then the teacher highlights the phonics sound the child is struggling with. Implicit phonics does NOT work. It gives the appearance of the science of reading. It is technically phonics instruction. However, implicit phonics is ineffective. Furthermore, implicit phonics often confuses parents. It gives parents the idea that their child is receiving science-based instruction when their child is not receiving anything close to science-based instruction.
Kids need systematic phonics.
Phonics is systematic when children learn one phonics sound at a time. Then, the teacher gives the children a few lessons so they can master that phonics sound.
For example, a kindergartner might learn the short a sound /a/ as in apple. She then would learn to read short a words like cat, mat, can… etc.
After a few lessons, the teacher would teach another common phonics sound like the short i sound /i/ as in igloo. The child would learn to read short i words like hip, mitt, rim… etc.
The child would proceed through all of the most common phonics sounds in this manner. She would learn one phonics sound at a time. Then, she would have time to master that phonics sound.
Kids need interleaving.
This is where many phonics programs go wrong. Phonics programs might be explicit and systematic, but they too often fail to use interleaving. There are also tons of phonics worksheets that don’t use interleaving.
What is interleaving? Interleaving is mixed practice. In phonics, mixed practice lessons include activities with the new phonics sound and all the old phonics sounds.
The following is a silent e list that does NOT contain interleaving. It can cause reading failure:
The above list is technically silent e phonics. However, it is not science-based. The child figures out very quickly that the silent e sound is repeated. He does not have to really put in any mental effort. The first vowel is always long and always says it’s name. The child masters all the words and the teacher is under the (false) impression that the child knows silent e phonics.
The below list contains interleaving. It includes both short vowels and silent e. It is a science-based list:
The above contains interleaving and is mixed practice. The child doesn’t know what vowel sound is coming next. The vowel can be long or short. The child, therefore, has to analyze the phonetic components of the word to figure out the sound of the first vowel. This mental effort allows the child to gain mastery over the silent e phonics sound. The learning the child acquires is long-lasting and transferable to real texts.
Kids need decodable phonics books.
Decodable books are kind of like training wheels for learning how to ride a bicycle. Decodable books allow children to practice the limited phonics sounds they know. That way, kids can practice sounding out words. With decodable books, kids don’t have to guess. Kids never develop the bad habit of guessing, because guessing doesn’t work with decodable phonics books.
Real decodable phonics books will introduce one phonics sound at a time. So if the child knows short a, she’ll read a sentence like:
The rad cat sat at the mat.
Next, the series might introduce short i. The decodable text will include sentences like:
The cat hit the bad rat. The rat ran. The rat hid in a cap.
Then, the decodable text might introduce short o. The child will read sentences like:
Bob can hop. Pam can jig. Sam can jam. Bob and Pam hop and jig as Sam jams.
Decodable phonics books help kids master one phonics sound at a time. They help kids learn to sound out words.