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 elements of reading—print concepts, phonological awareness, 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.
“Before reading, young children need plenty of opportunities to talk, to listen, to ask questions.”
Spellings such as these tell us that children are now ready to learn such words and patterns in their spelling, and instruction may focus on them. At this point, comparing and contrasting vowel spelling patterns supports spelling and also supports decoding of longer words of more than one syllable: words such as sitting, hiking, and roadway. This is the developmental point at which the ability to read most words accurately runs ahead of the ability to spell many words accurately.
Instructionally, it is important to keep this last point in mind. When children have moved beyond a one-letter-one-sound understanding of how words work and are exploring within word patterns, there is a “span” between their reading and their spelling of words. Let’s say children are learning about the spelling of long vowel patterns and more complex consonants within single-syllable words. If we try to get them to spell new two-syllable words correctly at this point, believing such work will reinforce memory of the words, we will in effect be requiring children to work at their frustration level. No productive learning occurs, and children adopt the least-effective strategy: They attempt to memorize each word.
The Foundation of Fluency
A developmentally-based word recognition/phonics and spelling approach ensures that children will better learn the types of patterns in the spelling system, and such exploration builds their underlying orthographic knowledge. This knowledge in turn supports their more rapid identification of known words in reading and provides the knowledge to decode unknown words of two or more syllables more effectively. This is where fluency primarily comes from—understanding spelling patterns in words. The more learners understand how words work, the more rapid and efficient will be their word recognition.
A well-constructed qualitative spelling inventory can provide information that children are using when they spell and read words. This helps teachers determine what features and patterns particular children will benefit from learning. For spelling, it is important to bear in mind that children should be correctly spelling approximately half of the words to be studied each week. This ensures that they have sufficient underlying knowledge and confidence to learn the remaining words and understand the patterns according to which those words are spelled. Some teachers believe that if children miss most of the words on a spelling pretest, they would simply have to study harder to learn all of the words by the end of the week. Again, however, this is requiring children to work at their frustration level, and little if any long-term, productive knowledge occurs.
Does this imply that young children cannot learn to read and learn the meanings of longer words? Of course not! We just won’t expect them to spell all of those words correctly. For example, primary children can learn important vocabulary words such as geology and geothermal, and teachers can even plant the seed about Greek and Latin roots. Children may learn, for instance, that geo means “earth” and thermal means “heat.” But most of their word study will continue to focus on exploring developmentally-appropriate words and patterns—the foundation for more fluent reading and deeper understanding.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
Watch these webinars hosted by Dr. Shane Templeton on developing foundational skills for all children and uncovering what the brain reveals about literacy development in the intermediate and middle grades.
Hear from Dr. Shane Templeton in the webinar "Decodable Readers: Where Do We Go From Here?" to hear what the research says about using non-controlled or “natural” texts in the early elementary classroom.