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Important Concepts in Early Reading

By Frank Armbruster
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #73, 2006.

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Frank Armbruster


Three major authors have identified one common factor, the lack of which is a red flag for future reading problems in non-readers (dyslexics) and beginning readers. That factor is "phonemic awareness." If a beginning reader lacks phonemic awareness, he or she will have difficulty progressing beyond just memorizing and recognizing about 350 words. These beginning readers who lack phonemic awareness do not have what it takes to read a word they have never seen before, or to read compound words, the components of which they can read. They lack an important "word attack skill." They cannot "sound out" a new word to decode it, even though they may have the word in their speaking vocabulary.

As I said in a previous column: In the ABCs the letters' most common sounds don't equate well to the letter names; and the letter names don't evoke the most common letter sounds (phonemes). In the military alphabet of "Alpha, Bravo, Charlie" names, however, the letter names do serve as good cues to the sounds represented. An example serves to illustrate the difference. Consider the letter "A" \ae\ page, cave, and name. Contrast that with "Alpha" \a\ as in apple, ax, and ant. Other letter names in the ABC alphabet have equivalent problems. The Alpha Bravo Charlie alphabet has far fewer problems of this nature.

Learning/Teaching Sequence for Beginning Readers

The first thing we'd like for non-readers to learn is that those lines and curves (we call them letters) on a printed page represent sounds made by the human voice. And those sounds go together to make words. In the beginning, we'd like for children to discover that idea. We'd also point out that the first word on a page is at the upper left, we read them from left to right and that when the first line ends, we go back to the left side and drop down one line for the next words. What I've described above are called "print awareness" and "phonemic awareness."

Ideally, each letter should represent only one sound and each sound would be represented by only one letter. But alas, in English there are 26 letters (graphemes) and 44 sounds (phonemes). Except for the Hawaiian language, no alphabetic language has a one-to-one correspondence of letters to sounds, and that's one reason why it is so difficult to teach reading: there are no hard and fast rules for the code. Or if there are rules, they're much too complex to teach to someone who can't read!

After the learners are exposed to printed groups of letters and practice saying the words (sounds) that these written words (letter sets) represent, we ask them to detect some characteristics of those words. One thing we do early is to ask if two words rhyme. Word sets such as cat, bat, rat, sat illustrate this idea. And at about the same time (sometimes sooner) we ask them to tell if two or more words start with the same sound. For beginners, we show words starting with the same letters to cue this. And along with these early skills, we begin to ask for some spelling. We don't ask for spelling memorization, we simply ask the learner to spell the word, letter by letter and left to right as he or she is looking at it.

I'm not going to carry this idea any farther at this point. Instead, there are a couple of more things I want to say about early reading.

Controversy About Method

During the twenties, thirties, and forties, a method called "phonics" was the method of choice in the public schools. Gradually, the "look-say" method became popular and is still popular with some language teachers. There are strengths and weaknesses in each method. Controversy still exists, but "look-say" is losing the battle as test results expose weaknesses in reading and comprehension scores of the look-say generation of school graduates.

Phonics vs Phonemic Awareness

A classic phonics student would be taught to see the first four letters of the alphabet and then say "\ah\, \buh\, \kuh\, \duh\." The problem with that is demonstrated by an anecdote told to me by Paul Hanna, the pioneer of grapheme-phoneme research: As Paul related it: "This little girl was a perfect learner. She was taught by the phonics method, and she had learned it well. She came to a word she'd not seen before. The word was b-i-r-d. She looked at it then sounded it out as buh-ur-duh. She looked puzzled and asked 'What's a buh-ur-duh?' "

That's why we want parents and teachers using phonemic awareness methods to learn to pronounce certain words without the \uh\-called "shwa"-sound. I teach them to whisper the sounds of these consonants that can't be pronounced by themselves such as the letters b, k, d, t, g, and p. Put your fingers on your Adam's apple as you say these phonemes; if you feel a buzzing, you're doing it wrong. Other consonants, such as f, h, l, m, n, r, s, and w, don't have the problem. These can be pronounced without the shwa.

Please try to understand that this idea is difficult to portray on paper without being able to actually say these sounds to you aloud. Linguists have developed a print convention that helps a little, but there are still problems. Linguists have established an international phonetic alphabet (IPA) that has a standards way of pronouncing all 44 of those phonemes I mentioned above. But the IPA must be learned - it is not intuitively pronounceable at least not by this old man!

Well, there's the problem with teaching reading and writing of English: 26 letters (grapheme) and 44 sounds (phonemes). And furthermore they don't even map in any consistent way. So what do we do? I believe that most people who have learned to read have done so by a process called induction. More on that next time.

More Advice to Parents

  1. Read with your children. Let them see you enjoy reading things to them.

  2. Let them see and know that you read because you like to read.

  3. Don't try to teach them any so-called "rules" for reading at first.

  4. Work a crossword puzzle from your newspaper and let your child watch.

Additional Requests of Parents

I want to ask three things of parents when teaching beginning readers:

  1. Teach them the Alpha Bravo Charlie alphabet along with the ABCs.

  2. Avoid adding the schwa if you teach them any phoneme correspondences. To tell if you're omitting the schwa, put your finger on your Adam's apple. If you don't feel a vibration, you're doing it right.

  3. Take your child to the supermarket and point out the labels on food products. Let them know that the words tell us what is inside.

This article was adapted from one that appeared in the February 2004 issue of Buyer's Quarterly. Used by permission. For additional informational materials, please go to abc2z.com.


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