I had the pleasure of attending the Plain Talk About Literacy and Learning conference in New Orleans, where I witnessed literacy heroes present on current research. What I learned there and what I continue to learn through my own exploration has expanded my understanding of the science of reading and how to teach children to read.
Disclaimer: I am just scratching at the surface of the different research and practices that are out there. As I learn, I write things down to help me process my understanding. My posts are reflective of the current stage of my learning and I have a long way to go. While my understanding is expanding, it is still so limited. However, it’s important that I share along the way in order to serve as an example. We need to be open to continuous learning and it’s okay to not be an expert right away. It’s also okay to challenge the way you’ve always done something in the past. And by the way, if you’re ever following along and thinking, “Oh no, girlfriend. You’ve got this all wrong,” please reach out to me and teach me! 🙂
A Little Background
I was trained in teaching children how to read using a systematic approach that was rooted in linguistic knowledge. However, I did not have the opportunity to apply what I had learned because I’ve never taught below second grade! My experience is mainly in grades 2-3 and I consider myself to be an effective reading teacher at this level. I have tested and refined my practice around close reading, comprehension, word study, writing, and guided reading. These are some of the areas I feel make up a large part of literacy in the upper grades. Many of my students have an adequate understanding of HOW to read, so we begin to focus on making meaning. (Of course, this is not everyone).
Reading instruction at this level looks different from instruction in the primary grades where students are being taught how to read. Personally, I feel like these are two completely different worlds. It’s baffling to think that a teacher who has only taught in fifth grade can be moved down to Kindergarten the next year, or vise versa. As my friend Brittany jokingly suggested in New Orleans, maybe there should be two different teaching credentials for elementary—one for primary and one for upper.
The Science of Reading
There is a systematic and research-driven method for teaching children how to read. When children are not taught each component of early literacy in an explicit way, gaps can form and it can be difficult to detect and remedy later down the line. There are crucial times in a child’s development to learn specific skills that help lay the foundation for proficient reading, beginning as early as preschool.
Phonological vs. Phonemic Awareness
Early literacy begins with phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is commonly used interchangeably with phonemic awareness, but there is a slight difference between the two. Think of phonological awareness as the main category. What falls under this main category is a subcategory called phonemic awareness. Both of these are awarenesses developed through listening and speaking, not by reading or writing. They are auditory, not print.
Experts such as Louisa Moats have helped to pave the way for what we understand to be the science of reading, or how humans learn to read. Her work is grounded in linguistic theory around how our brains process sound naturally and well before we begin to learn to read.
We learn to listen and to speak naturally, but reading and writing is a man-made practice that involves explicit instruction. We move from speech to print. However, children are not naturally aware that their spoken words are made up of individual phonemes. This is discovered. Therefore, it’s key for educators to deliver systematic and explicit instruction in order to help students develop their awareness, so that when it comes time to introduce print, children can anchor the print to the already memorized (or “mapped”) phoneme sequences. This is a concept known as orthographic mapping.
The Great Debate!
The research done in this area debunks the idea that children learn to read naturally through metacognitive strategies—an educational philosophy known as the whole language approach. Whole language proponents believe that when surrounded by rich enough text, students don’t need explicit and systematic lessons breaking down the reading code. Instead, they believe that students will store entire words in their memory and be able to recognize them on sight. In order for this to be accurate, humans would have to use their visual memory to store printed words. However, this is not the way we process and store words. Instead, we store letter strings in our long-term memory by way of orthographic mapping.
It would be challenging to read different variations of the same word automatically if we used our visual memory to store words. For instance, the same word can be written in all caps, a mix of upper and lowercase letters, in different fonts, or with different handwritings.
This same word can be read in all its forms because even though the visual appearance is varied, the letter strings are not. Our brains store letter strings in long-term memory by bonding them to the phonemes that we already have awareness of.
The role that visual memory DOES play in reading relates to alphabet recognition and the area of reading comprehension that relates to visualizing text as you are reading as a means for processing.
From Research to Practice
I will attempt to bridge the research to real-life practices in the classroom in an effort to speed up the “research to practice pipeline.”
Since we know that we learn print through sounds, it’s important that teachers help students develop a solid awareness of sounds.
Using a sound wall instead of a word wall in the classroom places the emphasis on PHONEMES and not print. Learn about using a sound wall here.
Since you’re teaching students about sounds and patterns that make up words, it’s also important to assess them accordingly. Learn about how to assess students here.
Foundational Reading Skills Bundles
Are you looking for effective teaching tools, student practice, and assessments that are simple to implement and that help develop your students’ foundational reading skills? We have you covered!
These bundles include:
- Word Work Student Pamphlets
- Hands-On Word Work Activities
- Digital and Interactive Word Work Student Practice
- Sound Walls (Printable bulletin board + Google Slides)
- Digital + Printable Spelling Tests (that assess patterns and sounds and not just memorization!)