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Print Awareness: A First Step Towards Reading

By Frank Armbruster
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #74, 2007.

Here's why I say that learning to read is at least partially an inductive process.

First, let me illustrate a deductive process, sometimes called deductive logic.

We give (or tell) the learner what the process is (example: addition.) Then we specify the inputs, i.e. six and five. We ask for the result. If the result is forthcoming, we can say that deduction has taken place. Frequently, there is an algorithm that describes the process. In the early stages of arithmetic teaching, we illustrate it with objects such as counters or marks of some type and grouping.

If the process is what we call reading, we can't explain it, we can only illustrate it. We illustrate it by doing it. We specify the input, say a written word on a page. We give the result, i.e. a spoken utterance (or word.) We want the learner to internalize the process, but we don't want or expect an explanation. We want only that the learner do it.

Let me go a little further. We read to a young child who is a non-reader. We look at words on a page. Ideally we point to the words at the same time as we say them. We perform the process - without explaining it, because we can't explain it, it's happening inside our brain - and we say the result of that process, i.e. a verbal utterance, based on the code of converting letters (graphemes) into sounds (phonemes). The thing we want the child to know is that those shapes (letters) can be converted into sounds (phonemes). But I believe we shouldn't try to explain that. I believe the learner should discover that.

We also want the child to know that the first word on the page of a book is usually found at the upper left-hand corner and the words go from left to right, one after the other. But again, we want the child to discover that. We can test for this discovery by asking the child to point to the first word on the page. If she points to the right word, we praise. Then we ask the child to point to the next word. We read it aloud. Then we ask the child to point to several words in sequence. We say them aloud. Then we slide our finger (or a pointer) along the line of print as we read the words.

What I'm trying to illustrate is a way of showing the idea of print awareness. The first thing a new learner ought to know is print awareness. And we teach it by this inductive process. We don't try to explain it. We test for it, but we don't explain it or ask the child to explain it.

Now, contrary to how we do it with the child, I'm going to spell it out for you, the reader. Here's an outline of what I believe is the idea of print awareness:

1. There are lots (26) of different letters (graphemes) and lots (44) of different spoken sounds (phonemes) and a group of letters close together is a word.

2. Written words represent spoken sounds

3. The first word on a page is at the upper left

4. A space between letters signals the next word

5. Words are printed left-to-right and read (aloud) one after another

The first duty of a parent is to illustrate print awareness by reading to the child. And we want the child to discover print awareness for himself. We don't want him to explain it, just to show it by doing examples of pointing.

I've tried to illustrate why I call the process an inductive process. Some might call it discovery learning. Or it might also be called teaching by illustration.

I hope this makes sense. It isn't easy to put it on paper. I could show it to you more easily if we were together and if we had a child here to work with. If you have questions, please email me in care of the publisher. I'll do my best to answer all queries.

I have outlined a "natural" way to introduce very young children to what reading is all about. This first step in getting your child ready to read requires only a book with large print, a finger to point, and a patient, good reader (you). There's much more to reading, of course, as we will see in future columns.