Author: Mary K.
ERIC/OSEP Digest #E565 Feb.1998
to teach reading has been the subject of much debate over the years.
One reason may be because, to the reading public, reading seems to be
a fairly easy and natural thing to do. However, this apparent ease masks
the very real and complex processes involved in the act of reading.
The truth is that learning to read is anything but natural.
In fact, it does not develop incidentally; it requires human intervention
and context. While skillful readers look quite natural in their reading,
the act of reading is complex and intentional; it requires bringing together
a number of complex actions involving the eyes, the brain, and the psychology
of the mind (e.g., motivation, interest, past experience) that do not
The two processes described here phonological awareness
and word recognition are essential to teaching beginning reading to children
with diverse learning and curricular needs, such as students with learning
disabilities. For these children, as for many children, learning to read
is neither natural nor easy. Also, research has made it clear that, for
those students who fall behind in reading, opportunities to advance or
catch up diminish over time. Therefore, the teaching of beginning reading
is of supreme importance and must be purposeful, strategic, and grounded
in the methods proven effective by research.
The Sound of Words
The "unnatural" act of reading requires a beginning
reader to make sense of symbols on a page (i.e., to read words and interpret
the meanings of those words). In the case of English, these symbols are
actually sequences of letters that represent an alphabetic language, but
more important, the printed letters can also be translated into sounds.
To translate letters into sounds, a beginning reader should "enter
school with a conscious awareness of the sound structure of words and
the ability to manipulate sounds in words" (Smith, Simmons, &
Kameenui, 1995, p. 2). This is referred to as phonological awareness.
The research is clear and substantial, and the evidence
is unequivocal: Students who enter first grade with a wealth of phonological
awareness are more successful readers than those who do not.
Some examples of phonological awareness activities include
asking a child to respond to the following (Stanovich, 1994):
- What would
be left out if the /k/ sound were taken away from cat?
- What do you
have if you put these sounds together: /s/, /a/, /t/?
- What is the
first sound in rose?
In these activities, students do not see any written words
or letters. Instead, they listen and respond entirely on the basis of
what they hear.
For some children, performing these activities may be
difficult for various reasons. For example, they may not be able to process
the sounds or phonemes that comprise a word. Other children simply cannot
hear the different sounds in a word, although the problem is not with
hearing acuity, but with the nature of phonemes. Phonemes are easily distorted,
and the boundaries for determining where one sound ends and the other
begins are not entirely clear to the ear and brain.
Phonological awareness activities build on and enhance
children's experiences with written language (e.g., print awareness) and
spoken language (e.g., playing with words). These activities also set
children's readiness and foundation for reading, especially the reading
of words. Children who have been immersed in a literacy environ- ment
in which words, word games, rhyming, and story reading are plentiful are
more likely to understand what reading is all about than those who have
experienced an impoverished literacy environment. A beginning reader with
successful phonological awareness is ostensibly ready for word recognition
Teaching Tips: Phonological Awareness and Alphabetic
- Make phonological
awareness instruction explicit. Use conspicuous strategies and make
phonemes prominent to students by modeling specific sounds and asking
students to reproduce the sounds.
- Ease into
the complexities of phonological awareness. Begin with easy words and
progress to more difficult ones.
- Provide support
and assistance. The following research-based instructional sequence
summarizes the kind of scaffolding beginning readers need:
(a) Model the sound or the strategy for making
(b) Have students use the strategy to produce the sound.
(c) Repeat steps (a) and (b) using several sounds for each type and
level of difficulty.
(d) Prompt students to use the strategy during guided practice.
(e) Use steps (a) through (d) to introduce more difficult examples.
- Develop a
sequence and schedule, tailored to each child's needs, for opportunities
to apply and develop facility with sounds. Give this schedule top priority
among all classroom activities.
According to Juel (1991), children who are ready to begin
reading words have developed the following prerequisite skills. They understand
that (a) words can be spoken or written, (b) print corresponds to speech,
and (c) words are composed of phonemes (sounds). (This is phonological
awareness.) Beginning readers with these skills are also more likely to
gain the understanding that words are composed of individual letters and
that these letters correspond to sounds. This "mapping of print to
speech" that establishes a clear link between a letter and a sound
is referred to as alphabetic understanding.
The research on word recognition is clear and widely accepted,
and the general finding is straightforward: Reading comprehension and
other higher-order reading activities depend on strong word recognition
skills. These skills include phonological decoding. This means that, to
read words, a reader must first see a word and then access its meaning
in memory (Chard, Simmons & Kameenui, 1995).
But to do this, the reader must do the following:
a word into its phonological counterpart, (e.g., the word sat is translated
into the individual phonemes (/s/, /a/, and /t/).
the correct sequence of sounds.
- Blend the
- Search his
or her memory for a real word that matches the string of sounds (/s/,
/a/, and /t/).
Skillful readers do this so automatically and rapidly
that it looks like the natural reading of whole words and not the sequential
translation of letters into sounds and sounds into words. Mastering the
prerequisites for word recognition may be enough for many children to
make the link between the written word and its meaning with little guidance.
For some children, however, more explicit teaching of word recognition
Beginning reading is the solid foundation on which almost
all subsequent learning takes places. All children need this foundation,
and research has shown the way to building it for students with diverse
needs and abilities.
Teaching Tips: Reading Words
- Develop explicit
awareness of the connection between sounds and letters and sounds and
words: Teach letter-sound correspondence by presenting the letter and
modeling the sound. Model the sounds of the word, then blend the sounds
together and say the word.
- Attend to
(a) the sequence in which letter-sound correspondences are taught; (b)
the speed with which the student moves from sounding out to blending
words to reading connected text; and (c) the size and familiarity of
- Support learning
by modeling new sounds and words, correcting errors promptly and explicitly,
and sequencing reading tasks from easy to more difficult.
opportunities to practice and review each task, according to the child's
needs, and give them top priority.
Chard, D.J., Simmons, D.C., & Kameenui, E.J. (February
1995). Word Recognition: Curricular and Instructional Implications for
Diverse Learners. (Technical Report No. 16). Eugene: National Center to
Improve the Tools of Educators, University of Oregon.
Juel, C. (1991). Beginning reading. In R. Barr, M. L.
Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, & P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of reading
research. (V 2, pp. 759-788). New York: Longman.
Smith, S. B., Simmons, D. C. & Kameenui, E. J. (February
1995). Synthesis of research on phonological awareness: Principles and
implications for reading acquisition. (Technical Report No. 21). Eugene:
National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators, University of Oregon.
Stanovich, K. E. (1994). Romance and reality. The
Reading Teacher, 47, 280-290. Based on "Shakespeare and Beginning Reading: "The
Readiness Is All'" by Edward J. Kameenui in "From the ERIC
Clearinghouse," TEACHING Exceptional Children, Winter
1996, pages 77-81.
ERIC digests are
in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated, but
please acknowledge your source. This publication was prepared with funding
from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department
of Education, under contract no. RI88062007. The opinions expressed in
this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI
or the Department of Education.
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