Reading Instruction Reconsidered

books, apple, and ABC cube on teachers table

When it comes to teaching kids to read – especially children with dyslexia and other language processing disorders – are we on the right track? An approach that works for some-of-the-children some-of-the-time leaves out a lot of potential readers.

As APM journalist, Emily Hanford, points out, “Research shows that children who don’t learn to read by the end of third grade are likely to remain poor readers for the rest of their lives, and they’re likely to fall behind in other academic areas, too.”

Traditionally, reading has been taught as a printed-word skill.  Show the child a page of text again and again until the letters magically take shape as words that can be connected with meaning.  At best, reading has been taught as a print-to-speech (phonics) skill. But the science of reading is clear:  Reading is most effectively taught the other way around – from speech-to-print.

The term speech-to-print doesn’t just mean teaching speech sounds and the letters that spell them.  Rather, it suggests that instruction should include every domain of language structure, beginning with speech (phonology) and moving step by step to discourse. There’s solid research evidence, including a lot of neuroscience, for including every language domain as part of a interwoven curriculum. The curricula that interweave all the domains of language are referred to as structured literacy methods.  

Alas, the traditional methods, “the way we’ve always done it,” are turning out to be less effective than an approach that begins with speech sounds: phonemic awareness (“the ability to segment words into their component sounds, which are called phonemes” and connect speech sounds to spelling patterns).

Rather than looking at a printed word and trying to puzzle out its sound and meaning, a speech-to-print approach begins with hearing the word, isolating the sounds within the word (phonemic awareness), learning the relationship between the sounds and letters (sound-symbol association), and manipulating the sounds and letters sequentially in order to read and spell new words. When taught this way, decoding and spelling instruction is a logical and orderly sequence of steps. It is systematic, cumulative and explicit.

However, it is not a one-size-fits-all process. Children have varying processing abilities that may impact their progress. Research demonstrates that core (phonological) weaknesses can be significantly and permanently improved with direct instruction and practice for all students, even for students with cognitive impairments.  Of course, parents can help by playing speech sound games, linking speech sounds to print and reading aloud to their children.

Still, most of the responsibility for teaching reading and spelling falls on classroom teachers. In our next article on reading instruction, we’ll look at systems that support a speech-to-print literacy approach.

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Sandie Barrie Blackley, MA/CCC

MA/CCC - Cofounder and CKO

Sandie is a speech-language pathologist with more than 30 years of experience in the private practice sector. She is Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at University of North Carolina Greensboro, and founder/owner of the Language & Learning Clinic, PLLC, a private practice in Elkin, NC, and Greensboro, NC, specializing in communication disorders, including disorders of reading and written language.