Most children can be well on their way to reading proficiency by the end of third grade. So what’s holding them back? We know that each of the foundational components—print concepts, phonological/phonemic awareness, phonics and word recognition, and fluency—is essential to building a successful reader. Trouble is, these components are often treated as though they are discrete, teachable skills, even though the instructional reality is far more complex. The components are inextricably interrelated, and they follow a developmental continuum. Here, we explore important developmental relationships among these components as children grow from emergent to beginning and transitional readers by the end of Grade 3.
Kids learn to speak before they learn to read. “Of course,” we say, but then we often rush into lessons that focus on phonemic awareness. Not so fast! Before reading, young children need plenty of opportunities to talk, to listen, to ask questions—about their worlds, their environment, their classroom. And, of course, you’ll guide them in discussions that give them the opportunity to explore and discover.
The World of Print
At the same time that these discussions are happening, children are exploring print worlds. These worlds include texts that are read to them, or dictated by them and transcribed by a teacher. They might also include writing and drawing the kids do in response to texts. All along, kids are forming their concepts about print. And for most children, it is print that helps to make spoken language concrete, establishing the foundation for the explicit analysis of speech. Only then can beginning readers start to see how letters match to sounds in a left-to-right sequence.
It is important to recognize the importance of writing in the development of foundational knowledge, even at the emergent level. Over the last few decades, research has shown the importance of writing in the development of print concepts and sound awareness. We now know that young children’s writing and use of invented spelling are powerful contributors to phonemic awareness and to learning conventional spelling. As they learn the alphabet, children begin to integrate that knowledge with phonological awareness, leading to an awareness of the alphabetic principle. They are not fully phonemically aware, but they are picking up a few sounds and attempting to match them with the names or sounds that letters make. It is this partial representation that helps support the development of full phonemic awareness.
Full phonemic awareness is significantly advanced by the development of a concept of word in text—the ability consistently to match the printed word unit in a memorized text with the spoken word. Once children have this understanding, they are able to analyze all the letter-sound correspondences within words. Importantly, children will also then be able to learn and remember a much larger number of sight words. (An earlier blog explains this development in more detail.)
Spelling and Word Recognition
For beginning readers, there is a reciprocal relationship between encoding and decoding, or spelling and word recognition. As children learn about short-vowel patterns in phonics, they are learning how to spell words that contain these patterns. Over time, teachers’ decoding instruction serves to point out “what’s going on” in words with other vowel patterns, such as the role of silent e. Children come to understand the silent e pattern the more they read. We see children’s spelling begin to reflect that: MAEK or MEAK for make; BIEK or BIEK for bike.