This is an interesting question to reflect upon. There are undoubtedly children who learn to read fluently, sometimes before entering formal schooling, others who make a great start once structured reading instruction begins and yet a further group who struggle to understand the reading process. With this range of reading ability, what should be our approach within the early years of school?
Historically, the two camps on reading instruction are the proponents of phonics and the whole word supporters. In its most simplistic form, a traditional phonics approach starts with the individual sounds in a word (the phonemes) and teaches the correlation between these sounds and the letter symbols. The whole language approach begins with a whole word and uses context and background knowledge to enable children to make predictions on what a word could be e.g. ‘minute’ as in time, rather than ‘tiny’, ascertained from the context. It also relies on a student visually memorising the written words.
Undoubtedly, there is research to be found which supports the validity and effectiveness of both approaches, but the international reviews of reading, carried out in Australia, the USA and the UK, favour beginning with a structured phonic approach: ‘Systematic phonics is critical if children are to be taught to read well, whether or not they experience reading difficulties.’ (National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy, 2005)
The reason for using a phonic approach is that the successful use of context requires about 90% of the words in a text to be recognised. If a child has no ‘word attack’ strategy, other than just knowing the word by sight, they won’t be able to read enough of the text to ascertain the context. Our visual memory also has its limits; estimated at somewhere between 1500-2000 words for an adult human (McGuinness,1998, p 39). Eventually, even a great beginning reader will need a strategy to work out unknown words.
Subsequently, our students at Kalamunda Christian School are taught explicitly, using a systematic phonics program to get them off to the best possible start on their reading journey.
We have chosen to use Sounds-Write, which is a linguistic phonics program. This differs from a traditional phonics program in that we begin with the sounds a child can hear and then demonstrate how that sound can be written rather than starting our focus on the written letter. Our students learn that every sound in every word has been assigned a spelling and these are then taught systematically over the next few years.
For more information on the Sounds-Write method you can speak to your child’s teacher or use the following link to access a FREE course.