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Beginning Reading

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Apr 21, 2014

How 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 occur naturally. 

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): 

  1. What would be left out if the /k/ sound were taken away from cat? 
  2. What do you have if you put these sounds together: /s/, /a/, /t/? 
  3. 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 environment 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 activities. 

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