Children typically learn and develop the skills of reading, writing and spelling during their first years of primary school. However, we know that children need exposure to books and daily shared reading with an adult from even as babies to have the best start possible.
In the later years of primary school and beyond, the emphasis changes from learning to read to reading to learn.
Learning to read and write is no mean feat. Let’s look more closely to see what reading and writing involves.
What does it take to read?
Accurate and fluent reading requires the following skills and knowledge:
- Phonemic awareness – this refers to the knowledge that words are made up of sounds. It also refers to the ability to identify various sounds in a given word (e.g. the first, last, and middle sound) and to manipulate sounds (e.g. if you take the /s/ sound off “spin” you get “pin”). Excellent phonemic awareness skills are essential for excellent literacy skills.
- Letter identification – this is the ability to identify letters in both upper and lower case (e.g. a, A, B, b) and to be able to differentiate between letters and non-letters (e.g. numbers, other symbols)
- Knowledge of letter-sound correspondence – this is the knowledge of the sound that each letter – or a group of letters – makes (e.g. the letter “a” makes the sound /a/ as in “apple”, the letter “gh” makes the sound /f/ as in “laugh“, /g/ as in “ghost, or it can be silent in words like “through“). This is one of the most crucial skills to learn.
- Position coding – this is the ability to read letters in the correct order. (e.g. “could” is not the same as “cloud”)
- Blending – this is the ability to join the sounds of a word together in order to “decode” the word (e.g. b + l + a + ck = “black”)
- Language skills – in order to understand what you read you must have adequate vocabulary, grammar, and verbal working memory. Your background knowledge helps with comprehension also.
Next, it is important to develop reading fluency.
In order to remember and understand what they read, children must read with automaticity. Children achieve fluency by having repeated exposure to the words they read. Once a word is very familiar to the reader, she/he no longer decodes it, but rather identifies it as a whole, making reading much faster.
This does not mean that, as accomplished readers, we always read words as a whole. Even experienced adult readers will come across words they do not know, and will have to use their letter-sound knowledge and blending skills to read these unfamiliar words.
Try it yourself! Read: hippopotamus and then read: onychocryptosis.
You should have been able to read “hippopotamus” quickly, just by looking at the word, even though it is long, whereas (unless you have a medical background), you probably had to break down “onychocryptosis” (which means ‘ingrown toenail’) into individual sounds or syllables and blend these together. Knowledge of syllables can help to chunk sounds together to read long words (e.g. “fan-tas-tic”).
Knowledge of spelling rules helps to speed up reading as it reinforces the various letter combinations that make certain sounds (e.g. the letters “f”, “ph”, “gh” all make the sound /f/). Finally, knowledge of sight words is also important for reading fluency. Sight words are the common words in English which do not follow typical spelling patterns (e.g. “could”, “who”, etc.) which are “memorised” or taught “by sight” instead of blended. It is important to note that learning letter-sound rules to decode should always be taught prior to introducing sight words.
As you can see, there are a lot of skills involved in learning to read! A breakdown in any one of these areas can cause reading failure. Most typically, it is the letter-sound correspondence rules which are most difficult for novice readers to learn. And it is no wonder why decoding is challenging – the relationship between a sound and a letter is not intuitive; it is purely arbitrary. It is simply a code.
What does it take to spell?
This answer will be shorter! Learning to spell requires all the skills necessary for reading (listed above) but instead of blending, we use segmentation.
Segmentation is the ability to break a word into its individual phonemes. It is a phonemic awareness skill.
For example, in order to spell “frog” you would have to segment this word to find that it contains 4 separate sounds /f/ + /r/ + /o/ + /g/. Your letter-sound correspondence knowledge and spelling rules would help you to write the correct letter for each phoneme: f + r + o + g = “frog”.
As with reading, a child would need to learn sight words in order to write words high frequency words with irregular spelling.
How can a Speech Pathologist help?
Reading difficulties have been shown to impact on a child’s academic progress as well as on their wellbeing. A child who struggles to read and spell may have difficulty with one or more of the skills of literacy. All the skills can be assessed during a thorough Speech Pathology assessment in order to identify the areas that require support. Scientific research has repeatedly shown that systematic synthetic phonics is the best way to teach literacy skills. Systematic synthetic phonics teaches novice and struggling readers the relationships between sounds and letters in a systematic, explicit and direct way.