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Foundations of Reading

A Foundation to Build Upon: Phonemic Awareness and Systematic Phonics

The Problem

In many of our nation's schools reading instruction begins with comprehension and fluency instruction. I know of several schools that require all students, even kindergarten students, to read a minimum of 40-60 minutes per day. In order to accomplish this goal, kindergarteners and struggling readers are provided with pattern readers. The idea is that the student will master the reading of sight words and be able to use picture clues to guess the content words.

For example, a pattern book on page one may say, "This is a horse." On page two, "This is a dog." Each page will then follow the pattern with a picture to prompt the student to fill in the word that is needed for "comprehension." Teachers will then listen to the students read and encourage them to read with more expression. In this way the school is able to claim an early success with getting students reading. Notice the goal here is to build the foundation of reading on early comprehension and fluency. This is akin to putting up the walls of a building without constructing a foundation.

The Five Strands of Reading

  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Systematic Phonics
  • Vocabulary Development
  • Fluency
  • Reading Comprehension

The second stage to such a program is to learn the letters and some of their sounds. (I say some because these programs do not teach a complete set of sounds for each letter.) Students then continue to read pattern books but are encouraged to look at the first sound in the content words in order to provide a clue as to the picture.

While I was sitting in on a training for one of these programs, the trainer showed a video of a student reading. When the student came to the word "rabbit" he began to sound it out. The instructor stopped the video and said, "This is exactly what we do NOT want the student to do. We do not want him to sound it out. He will lose the flow of the book. Notice how much time is lost."

She then continued the video. The teacher prompted the boy to look at just the first letter. The boy responded, "it says /r/."

The teacher then said, "Look at the picture. What do you see in the picture that starts with /r/?"

"Running."

The trainer then stopped the video and said, "that is perfect. This is exactly what we want. Notice that 'running' makes sense. So although the word says 'rabbit,' we desire students to use critical thinking skills and to find a word that makes sense. That is the purpose of the Common Core Standards: to teach students to think critically and to read with comprehension."

The problem is this boy, like most of our nation's students, is learning to guess. He is not learning to read. And he is not learning critical thinking skills about English or about language learning. Rather he was taught to read using sight words, and now someone is trying to dig out a minimal foundation of phonics, thereby providing an unstable and confusing platform for reading.

The Importance of a Strong Foundation

In order to teach our nation's students to read, we need to provide them a solid foundation about language and teach them true critical thinking skills about language. Living in Rochester, MN, I am reminded of the Mayo Clinic. The buildings for the clinic were built so that many stories could be added on top in later construction phases. What did the builders need to do to provide for this possibility in the future? They needed to build a solid foundation, one that could support more structure. In the same way, laying the foundation for reading is critical not only for reading, but for a student's entire education. Though it takes time to lay a foundation, if it is done properly, then once it is in place the student will be able to focus on reading for comprehension rather than continually drilling reading skills.

Functional MRI research provides some powerful clues as to how to best lay the foundations for reading. We now know that struggling readers rely heavily on the visual and higher-order thinking areas of the brain, whereas strong readers use the area of the brain used for speaking and listening. Strong readers have made the connection that reading is another form of communicating what could be spoken. They experience text as if they are listening to someone speak. Strong readers are experiencing sounds. Struggling readers, on the other hand, experience text visually and must rely on guessing. Notice how the examples above promote this sort of learning.

The good news is that with systematic teaching not only can struggling readers become strong readers, but also their brains will begin to function like strong readers' brains, as evidenced in fMRI studies. The key is to provide students with a strong foundation in language!

Phonemic Awareness

When babies learn to speak, they do not begin with words, but with sounds. Babies babble all the sounds in all the known languages; however, as they listen to the sounds spoken around them they begin to narrow their babble to the sounds they are hearing. Then as they combine the sounds into short words, people around them react with praise. "Ma," "dada," "cup..." In this way babies begin to move from sounds to words. Within months babies then begin to say short phrases - "more juice" - and longer words and phrases, and then sentences. Since babies learn to speak naturally, we often do not pause to consider that they begin with sounds.

PHONO - sound

GRAM - picture

By the time a child is school age, she is no longer focused on sounds. Rather she is now intent on learning new words. Many children this age are still missing speech sounds and often appear unaware of their mispronunciations. They are simply not as focused on sounds.

To teach a student to read, we must help him to rediscover that words are all made by combining one or more of the 45 sounds of English. In this way we can respect how children learn and provide them the same foundation for reading that they used to build their speech.

We can do this by playing games with the child where we "un-glue" or segment words and ask the child to "glue" or blend them back together. For example we can play a form of Simon Says where we segment a word and ask the child to do the action, /s-i-t/, /j-u-m-p/. As students learn to blend the words back together, they are practicing a foundational reading skill while learning that all words can be broken into their individual sounds.

Once a student is able to blend words back together, we can ask her to begin to segment the words. By gathering stuffed animals and placing them in front of the student, we can then ask her to "unglue" a word and we will pick the correct animal. Young students love these sorts of games and many will begin to "break" apart words just for fun.

This is the foundation of all reading: phonemic awareness, the understanding that all words are comprised of sounds that have been blended together. Students who have developed phonemic awareness will be able to blend sounds into words and to break words into their sounds. Young children love these activities and many will begin to play with breaking apart words in their environment just for fun. One little girl happily declared to her mother, "Mommy, I broke hairbrush." Just as the mother was about to run up the stairs to survey the damage, the girl joyfully bounded down saying, "/h-ai-r-b-r-u-sh/."

Without the crucial skill of phonemic awareness most students will struggle with basic reading and spelling. These students often guess wildly while reading because these students have the mistaken impression that the markings on the page represent at their most foundational level words, and not sounds.

This skill is so foundational that some students who know all 75 phonograms still struggle to read if they have not achieved phonemic awareness. When these same students practice blending and segmenting words for one to two weeks many of them instantly begin to read chapter books. Phonemic awareness is the foundation of reading.

Phonograms and Spelling Rules

Once a student has demonstrated an understanding that words are made of sounds, it is time to begin to teach the phonograms and the spelling rules. Notice, we do not teach the students letters, rather we teach phonograms. A phonogram is literally a sound picture. Since the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet are inadequate to describe the forty-five sounds of English, it is vital that students know from the beginning that sometimes a phonogram may be represented by one, two, three, or even four letters. Students need to master the 75 phonograms that combine to form 98% of English words. In addition, there are 31 spelling rules which interplay with the phonograms and help students to understand vital linguistic concepts such as the nine reasons for a silent final E.

When teachers limit phonics education to the twenty-six letters, a handful of digraphs, and one silent E rule, many students experience great frustration trying to read even a simple children's book. I believe this is why so many schools resort to sight word education. They do not know these tools that explain many of the language's most common words. And since these words are necessary to construct a grammatically correct sentence in English, many teachers resort to the kill and drill of sight words. Instead, all they would need to do is provide the students with a few more foundational tools that would open up the more than 1,000,000 words of English.

Once students know a few phonograms they can begin to blend these together into short words and then combine those words into short phrases. For students who have phonemic awareness, these activities will mirror their previous activities with each sound now being given a visual representation.

Students should continue to learn the phonograms and spelling rules until they have mastered all 106. During this process students can begin to read longer words, phrases, sentences, then paragraphs, and grow into reading and comprehending books.

It is upon the foundations of phonemic awareness and phonograms that students are able to begin to practice and improve fluency skills, increasing the speed and accuracy of reading through practice reading aloud and silently. On the foundation of phonemic awareness and phonograms students can begin to learn the morphemes of English and to develop vocabulary. They will also be ready to learn and practice comprehension skills, which will lead to the goal of reading for comprehension.

Conclusion

Everyone agrees that the goal for all students is to be able to comprehend and think critically about what they are reading. This requires providing students with a foundation in language that begins with an understanding that at its most elemental level language written and spoken is comprised of sounds. With this understanding, students can then begin to learn the phonograms and rules that linguistically unlock 98% of English words. As soon as students know a few of the phonograms they can begin to use these to comprehend and compose short words and phrases, building into longer words, sentences, paragraphs, and books as their knowledge grows. If we provide students with a deep foundation in language education they will be able to build upon this knowledge by learning new vocabulary, practicing fluency, and developing reading comprehension skills. As they read and learn new concepts and information they will be able to use this knowledge to think critically about the texts and the world around them.

Join with us in providing a deep and lasting foundation for all students!

Learn More

Read the research.

Watch our videos The Five Strands of Reading, Phonemic Awareness, and Phonogram Lesson 1.

Logic of English Foundations - Reading, Phonics, Handwriting, and Spelling for ages 4-7.
Logic of English Essentials - Multi-level Spelling, Reading, Grammar, and Vocabulary for ages 8 to adult.