Did you know that there are 3 ways that most reading programs teach reading that are not in alignment with the science? Stay tuned to hear what those three mistakes are.
Don’t panic though…I’ll also reveal the 1 strategy that takes only 30 seconds to teach just about anyone how to read–and is in alignment with science.
Watch our Science Short #4 to discover the highlights or read on for more detail and research links!
Teaching Reading Mistake #1 - The 3 Cueing Approach - The Big One
The most popular way that reading programs will try to teach kids how to read is through the 3 cueing systems. If you want to know more about that approach and why it’s such a bad fit for most kids, please (please!) listen to the famed Sold a Story podcast series led by award-winning journalist Emily Hanford of APM.
For now, suffice it to say that the leading tactic most popular programs used now in the U.S. and most English speaking countries guide us to teach our students to attack an unknown word by:
- looking at the picture,
- thinking about the context of the sentence, and
- only thirdly and less frequently, thinking about the printed word in front of them.
And even when the teacher guides the child to attend to the print, s/he is more likely to just focus on the first letter–not look at each spelling in the word, left to right.
So you can see that this is relying on reasoning or higher level skills. Sounds like that might be good if you’ve been learning from mainstream teacher prep for the last few decades, but actually, science has really been very clear that that is the antithesis of how the brain learns to read.
Indeed, we know the child needs to attend to the print, read the sounds left to right in order to start to crack the code…to de-code. Only then can she become a good reader and speller. We've actually known this for over 50 years!
[Want to know more about the research? Then check out this timeline of the heavy hitters from the scientific community who have studied this issue, including hyperlinks to go to really influential documents, consensus reports, meta-analyses, et cetera, over the last 50+ years.]
A much smaller subset of reading programs that are being used in the U.S. and other countries such Canada and Australia involve the teaching of phonics.
And this is a good thing!
Teaching decoding explicitly is in alignment with what we know about the science. Kids have to be taught the code in order to crack it.
But there are different approaches to how to attack an unfamiliar word under this umbrella category of “phonics.”
Mistake #2 - Analytic Phonics & Relying on Word Families to Blend
Our number 2 strategy that is not really tightly aligned with the science would be called using analytic phonics, or relying on word families.
This may surprise some of you that I claim this!
The very influential U.S. National Reading Panel report in 2000 determined that the difference between analytic (using word family phonics) versus synthetic phonics (which we'll talk about in a second) was not clear. They did not declare a winner between the 2 types of decoding instruction, yet they both were clearly superior to the 3 cueing, or any embedded phonics approach. That is, the meta-analytic research suggested that where there was not a systematic approach to teaching how to crack the code, students did not achieve as much as phonics methods.
But since then, there have been some studies that have shown that a synthetic approach, which we'll cover below, is superior to an analytic approach, e.g….
- “Accelerating the development of reading, spelling and phonemic awareness skills in initial readers” by Johnston and Watson
- [Follow-up of above] “Long-term effects of synthetic versus analytic phonics teaching on the reading and spelling ability of 10 year old boys and girls” by Johnston, McGeown, and Watson
- “Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading” from the UK – the Rose Report
- “The efficacy of orthographic rime, grapheme–phoneme correspondence, and implicit phonics approaches to teaching decoding skills” by Christensen and Bowey
- “Examining the evidence on the effectiveness of synthetic phonics teaching: the Ehri et al (2001) and C.Torgerson et al (2006) meta-analyses” by Rhona Johnson
- “A 2020 Perspective on Research Findings on Alphabetics (Phoneme Awareness and Phonics): Implications for Instruction (Expanded Version)” by Susan Brady
When we use an analytic approach, we are relying on the ending rime as in the “at” rime in:
- mat, or
the ending “ip” rime in “sip” or “skip,” to teach how to blend the sounds in words together.
In an analytic approach, a teacher might ask the student to
- read the first sound, or the onset, as in “s” in “sat;” then
- read the rime, or the ending unit, “at,” and finally
- put them together–”sat.”
You can see this was what the PBS program Between the Lions thought would be a good way to teach kids how to read….
And indeed it's likely much better than the 3 cueing approach that relies more on context and less on cracking the code!
Yet we know now that a synthetic approach in which each sound is attacked individually–that is, each phoneme is read left to right–as in:
/s/ + /a/ + /t/
As opposed to
/s/ + /at/
will get better outcomes, on average.
Under this umbrella concept of synthetic phonics, there are a couple of different ways to teach kids how to attack an unknown word.
When they see the word “sat,” what do you prompt them to do?
Mistake #3 - Segmented Approach to Blending Sounds
This leads us finally to our third tactic that is quite common under the phonics umbrella, but is not–again–tightly aligned with the latest science.
This approach to teaching how to blend is what I call the
Sound, Sound, Sound = Word Approach
This synthetic phonics strategy is a segmenting-first approach. With this technique, the teacher will encourage a child who sees “sat” to say,
/s/ + /a/ + /t/
…and then say,
That sounds like traditional phonics, right? And there is some value in having children learn to segment: /s/ /a/ /t/ in sat.
The thinking is that segmenting those sounds or those phonemes allows students to “see” how the sounds that they hear connect to the symbols on the page.
Unfortunately, many many kids, particularly those who are weaker in phonological processing and maybe perhaps working memory, find that this process of segmented phonics or segmented decoding: Sound, Sound, Sound = Word is challenging.
Have you seen this with your beginning or struggling readers?
The child says, /s/ /a/ /t/ and then they say, “turtle” because all they can remember is that last thing that came out in “sat!”
You can see that the PBS show Sesame Street back in the day thought this would be a good approach to teaching decoding.
It's almost the speed it up approach to decoding….
The Top 3 Mistakes When Teaching Reading Summary
Whew! We've covered a lot of ground sharing the 3 strategies for teaching how to read words that are mainstream–but not really tightly aligned with science.
Number one–the 3 cueing system is really out of whack and has got to go! And many states in the U.S. and other countries have gotten to the point that they're even outlawing it as a strategy because the science is so robust.
The other two–the word families or analytic approach to attacking an unfamiliar word and the Sound, Sound, Sound = Word approach are still quite well respected and often what our phonics programs recommend.
But they're not as efficient and effective as the strategy that I'm about to share with you….
One Simple Strategy to Teach When Reading Words–Blend As You Read
Here at Reading Simplified, we teach the Blend As You Read decoding strategy because it reflects the science and it works really well.
Some folks call this strategy “continuous” or “successive blending.”
A well-known research study in 2020 called it “connected phonation.”
Regardless of what you call it, the big idea is that Blend As You Read is
- quick to teach and
- kids pick it up easily.
- Better yet, it works with almost everyone.
So for those kids who have challenges with blending isolated segmented sounds that they've heard as in “/s/ /a/ /t/….What word?” this is the trick.
With the Blend As You Read or continuous blending strategy, rather than having this child say each sound in a segmented fashion, we simply ask them to put the sounds together as they go–put the sounds together continuously.
For instance, with the word “sat” we would ask,
“What's that first sound?”
But we wouldn't stop there–we'd want them to put the /s/ together with the short “a” sound.
“What do you have next?”
Great! Now put those together.
And then they produce the last sound,
“And the word is?
It's a subtle distinction, and it might seem as a mature reader that it's not that big a deal. But in clinical experience I have seen with struggling readers that this slight twist makes a profound difference.
And you can see, for instance, what a couple other of our Reading Simplified members have discovered when they employed this simple little Blend As You Read trick….
So when you have students encountering an unfamiliar word, don't let them say each sound separately–/s/ /a/ /t/ and then put the sound together.
Rather have them put the sounds together continuously, or as they go:
One can coach the same way with a longer word such as “friend” as well…
Yes, the “ie” is an unusual spelling for the short “e” and we may need to let our students know that sound for “ie.” Yet, they can they can still do this Blend As You Read strategy once they get that info!
But don't just take my word for it. There have been numerous studies that have shown that this Blend As You Read strategy is more effective than the segmented approach for decoding. In the '80s and 90s there were a couple of studies:
- “Oral blending in young children: Effects of sound pauses, initial sound, and word familiarity”
- “Decoding Words: The Facilitative Effects of Saying the Sounds in a Word–Without Pausing” (p. 19)
- “Teaching Preschoolers to Read: Don't Stop Between The Sounds When Segmenting Words”
Then recently the very influential Linnea Ehri and her colleague Selenid Gonzalez-Frey did a nice study comparing the Sound, Sound, Sound=Word approach (that Sesame Street approach from above) versus the connected phonation or continuous Blend As You Read approach.
And the Blend As You Read approach came out on top!
In fact, they noted that they were surprised how quickly the students could learn in that condition:
And indeed, that's what we find here at Reading Simplified when we teach this strategy. Blend As You Read is a quick win.
Find a Student and Give Blend As You Read a Spin
So have you gotten the gist?
There are three approaches that are not in the tightest alignment with the science, but one strategy is likely going to give you the biggest bang for your buck.
We call it Blend As You Read.
Go out; find a student who is either a beginning or struggling reader; try this strategy with them, and let us know what you found!
Want to know more about how to implement and solve tricky problems? Check out this Ultimate Guide to the Teaching of Blending.
Finally, Blend As You Read is just one of the essential strategies we teach here at Reading Simplified. Learn about 2 other key strategies that complement Blend As You Read in this on-demand workshop.