Don’t Start at the Very Beginning (Teaching Letter Sounds in Context)
How can one not start at the beginning, you may be wondering. “Start” and “beginning” kinda mean the same thing, right?
In keeping with our mission here at Reading Simplified—streamlined instruction, accelerated achievement—I propose you skip the beginning stage of traditional reading instruction: teaching letter sounds in isolation.
Instead, jump to teaching letter sounds in context–in the context of real reading.
I wager with you: If you try the technique described below, your beginning readers will learn to read faster.
Typical Teaching of Letter Sounds
Imagine what happens every morning in most 4K, K or 1st grade classrooms in U.S. classes. Teachers are encouraged to hold up, point to, or highlight on their SMART board a letter and teach its name and often its sound. Perhaps several letters will be reviewed. The letters may be contextualized into real words, ideally in a multi-sensory way, yet the focus of the lesson will be on the letter alone, as in
and, at best, on its position in the beginning of a word:
Most curricula and teachers assume that before a child can learn to read, she has to learn the letter names and their sounds.
THEN real reading can start.
Is that true?
Is that the most efficient plan?
Our experience working with hundreds of beginning and struggling readers says,
How to Teach Letter Sounds from the Beginning
Instead of teaching letter names or letter sounds in isolation first, we guide both beginners and struggling readers how to build one word at a time using manipulatives–first. Yes, even if they do not yet know the letter names or sounds.
Here are some of the steps of Build It that allows the teacher to skip past letter names in isolation:
Destinee, what do you hear in this spot in the word, ‘ssssssssat’?
Yes, that’s right this sound (tapping space) in “sssssat” is /s–/.
Do you know which of these (tapping letter-sounds) is /s–/?
Even if Destinee has never had formal reading instruction, she has a 1 in 3 chance of getting the teacher’s question right.
Multiple choice is easier.
It’s one way to scaffold her learning. Suppose she doesn’t know which letter is /s/. The teacher can simply say,
No, this (tapping the “s” tile/square) is /s–/, as in the word, “ssssat.”
Then Destinee will move the “s” square into the first line and the teacher will repeat her questioning cycle:
Great! Now listen for the sound you hear in this spot (tapping 2nd spot), when I say, /sssa—–t/ (exaggerating and elongating the short “a” sound).
What sound do you hear?
Yes, that’s right this sound (tapping space) in “ssssaaaat” is /a–/.
Do you know which of these (tapping letter-sounds) is /a–/?
Yes! Pull down the /a—/ and say it as you move it.
Now the task is getting easier and easier. The teacher can ask Destinee to finish building the word, “sat.”
The same coaching through the word can continue with Destinee or with a handful of students in small group instruction. These students will be learning the letter-sounds in a multi-sensory way, but that’s not all!
They will also be learning these other fundamental skills:
- How our written language code works (the alphabetic principle)
- How to segment words into phonemes (individual sounds)
- Left-to-write scanning (a concept about print)
This simultaneous integration of multiple beginning skills makes the instructional time much more efficient. See our previous blog post, “Integrate, Don’t Isolate” for more about the benefits of integrating multiple skills.
And, yet, I don’t find that this approach simply reduces instructional time.
More importantly, this approach, which we call Build It, moves directly toward a real literacy behavior—spelling real words. Since it’s more like real reading, it makes more sense to young learners, especially those who would otherwise struggle with reading.
Teaching any new skill in the natural context in which it occurs is usually more effective for learning’s sake.
Watch this beginning 4 year-old as she tries to build the word, “sad.” Notice all the reading sub-skills she is putting all together in the context of a meaningful word simultaneously.
Teach Letter-Sounds in Context
Imagine a tennis instructor who begins the first several weeks of instruction by simply showing and practicing how to toss the ball for a serve.
What if he modeled how it related to serving himself (as in when a teacher reads “p” words), but he doesn’t ever allow the beginner to try to serve?
Yes, practicing a toss in isolation at times may be beneficial, but to begin tennis instruction with just that in isolation will delay many future players.
How high should they toss it?
How will they know if it’s a good toss?
Without a system for getting feedback, this approach at learning how to serve or how to begin in tennis, will be very inefficient. And those players who have seen little or no real tennis before will be especially
of getting little or nothing out of the experience of tossing a ball in the air over and over again. All of that info about the experience may even be “filed” away in the their brains in the wrong place because the isolated activity has little or nothing to do with the relevant context of tennis.
So goes beginning reading instruction as well.
Teach letter-sounds in the context of real words for spelling and reading and children will more likely:
- Learn the letter-sounds more quickly,
- Store the information about the letter-sounds in the part of the brain most connected to reading, and
- Not miss completely the point of the teacher’s instruction!
Skip the traditional beginning weeks or months of reading instruction and jump right into Build It. However, since this technique is so counter-cultural, you may have doubts….You may doubt whether your K or 1st grade students with limited literacy exposure could handle such a big jump.
You may be surprised to discover that traditional Montessori classrooms have been guiding their 3 and 4 year-old students to begin reading and writing instruction this way for over 100 years–in the context of real words and sentences. Somehow I never learned about the Montessori techniques when I earned my master’s in education. Thankfully, my mother-in-law tuned me into it when her first grandchild (yes, my first-born daughter) needed to find a good pre-school. What a difference that approach made to our daughter’s ease of learning to read!
In case you still doubt, here’s an example of an advanced 3 year-old doing an activity much like our Build It.
If you’re wondering what the theoretical or research communities have to say about the value of teaching letter-sounds, phonemic awareness, and reading all together, here are some biggies:
- The National Reading Panel concluded in its Phonemic Awareness meta-analysis that phonemic awareness instruction combined with decoding was more powerful than phonemic awareness instruction without letters.
- Some researchers have tested the isolation vs. integration question directly. An early study on this by Peter Hatcher, Charles Hulme, and Andrew Ellis can be found here. Briefly: reading + phonemic awareness instruction > than either phonemic awareness or reading instruction alone.
- A past president of the International Literacy Association and chair of the National Early Literacy Panel, Tim Shanahan, indicates here that the National Reading Panel “concluded that phonemic awareness and phonics both needed to be taught and that they could and should clearly be connected.”
- The ultra-scholarly among us can read deeply into the theory undergirding the Build It approach with Dr. David Share’s “self-teaching hypothesis.”
Please try Build It with a beginning student! And please let me know what questions or concerns you have before trying this approach.
Or, if you have tried it, were there any sticking points?