Instead of focusing on memorization, provide strong foundational skills that young readers can use to understand how to sound out words.

6 tips to help educators support young readers

Instead of focusing on memorization, educators need to provide strong foundational skills that students can use to understand how to sound out words

Key points:

In school, many kindergarten and first-grade students are asked to memorize lists of common words, which are sometimes called “sight words.” This practice skips important steps. The idea that children learn to read by memorizing whole words is a misconception. Research shows that teaching students individual letter-sound correspondences and having them sound out words is more effective.

Defining sight words

In research, a sight word isn’t merely one of several on a list of high-frequency words. It is any instantly recognizable word. We now know students learn to read by mapping individual sounds to letters that represent them. The more opportunities students have to practice decoding and spelling words, the more these letter–sound correspondences make sense to them. Once a word can be recognized within a fourth of a second, reading scientists call it a sight word: a word that can be read as if by sight.

The problem with emphasizing whole words

Some children’s books that are used to teach reading use repetition. For example, a book may say, “I see the police officer. I see the firefighter. I see the mail carrier.” Repetitive books are designed based on the outdated notion that students learn to read by memorizing whole words rather than sounding out words based on phonics skills. Prioritizing high-frequency words can lead students to believe that reading is a practice where they must memorize words rather than using their phonics knowledge to sound the words out. This approach to reading instruction inadvertently teaches students the habits of poor readers, leading to an over-reliance on guessing at words based on the first letter, picture, or sentence context.

Learning to read irregular words
Even irregular words have parts that can be mapped to sounds. Take the high-frequency word “said,” for example. In this word, the letter “s” spells the sound /s/, and the letter “d” spells the sound /d/. The only part of the word students need to learn is the middle two letters, “ai,” which spell the sound /e/.

When teachers call attention to the parts of the word rather than presenting the word as a whole, it can help students gain a better understanding of reading. This approach allows students to see the parts of the word they know and do not know. Students can memorize the part of the word that is irregular based on the phonics patterns they have learned. Some teachers call these “heart words” because students learn the irregular part of the word by heart. When students use their phonics knowledge to decode unknown words, they will run into words with irregularly spelled parts.

Teachers and administrators can support young readers in a variety of ways.

3 tips for teachers to support young readers

  1. Provide opportunities for students to practice flexible decoding strategies with irregularly spelled words. Begin by teaching them to ask questions that help them tap into what they already know: “I sounded this word out but it doesn’t make sense. What word do I know that sounds close to that word? Does it make sense in this context? Does it make sense with these letters and sounds I know?” Research suggests encouraging students to use a flexible decoding strategy after sounding out the word using their phonics knowledge will help them become problem solvers while reading. It may also help them to acquire new phonics knowledge.
  2. Use decodable texts that align with your curriculum’s phonics scope and sequence. Buyer beware: Many companies market books as “decodable,” but without alignment with your curriculum’s phonics scope and sequence, it’s unlikely the text is decodable for your students.
  3. Examine high-frequency word lists and determine which words are phonetically regular (“can,” “his,” “me”) and which words have irregular parts (“said,” “there,” “would”). Use this information to plan for your phonics and fluency instruction.

3 tips for administrators to support teachers and students

Administrators can also play a role in helping to support literacy. Based on my experience, below are three tips for administrators to support students and teachers.

  1. Supply classrooms with appropriate materials for phonics, including a wide range of decodable texts that align specifically with your school’s phonics scope and sequence.
  2. Do not create goals that include a set amount of sight words to reach by the end of the year. Instead, measure student progress on brief, predictive measures, including foundational skills assessments, such as word-recognition fluency in kindergarten or oral-reading fluency in first grade.
  3. Support teachers with time for professional learning. Teachers need ample time to gather resources to plan for instruction, learn new professional practices, collaborate with colleagues, and reflect on their learning and growth.

To help students become truly fluent readers, we need to consider how we teach reading. Instead of focusing on memorization, we need to provide strong foundational skills that students can use to understand how to sound out words. By helping students to understand letter–sound correspondences, pointing out parts of words that are irregular, and encouraging flexible decoding strategies, we can help students build a solid foundation in learning to read and spell.

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