"First, a child needs to be a fluent decoder...able to smoothly...go from print on the page to words in the mind. This is something that schools teach, but parents can help with it by reading to and with their kids—especially when that reading involves wordplay, which particularly helps kids with the challenge of identifying the “individual speech sounds” that make up a word." Daniel Willingham, Raising Kids Who Read
Through much of the 20th & now the 21st centuries, extensive research and discussion amongst researchers of reading has been devoted to exploring the 'best' ways to teach reading - either through specific phonics instruction (knowledge of letters and sound) or through 'reading' text using multiple strategies that include determining meaning as well as word structure. There are whole sectors of schools focused on teaching reading with one particular focus or the other, and researchers who insist there should be a greater focus on one approach over the other all the way through school.
Having been a research student of how to teach reading for the past ten years, reading thousands of pages of reading research and conducting my own research into teaching reading, I honestly believe if it were true that one way or the other was definitively the best way, then every child would already be successfully learning to read independently and with deep, reflective comprehension.
However, the reality is, despite our best efforts at teaching phonics or strategies or some sort of balance of both, there are always children who continue to struggle with learning to read. And teachers and parents, resultantly, need to see the learning of reading as a wide-spectrum series of experiences that intertwine and support each child to access and develop reading skills or expertise in their own unique way.
So, when I consider the potential for including home reading as part of the overall 'big picture' plan for helping all children develop both proficiencies and joy in learning to read, it seems pretty important to spend a little time exploring how to include learning about letters and sounds as part of the home reading experience.
"English is an alphabetic language. We have 26 letters. These letters, in various combinations, represent the 44 sounds in our language. Teaching students the basic letter-sound combinations give them access to sounding out approximately 84% of the words in English print. Of course, equal amounts of time need to be spent on teaching the meanings of these words, but the learning of these basic phonics skills is essential to becoming a fluent reader." - Wiley Blevins
Every teacher of reading includes letter/sound instruction as part of the teaching of reading and writing. Sometimes this has been called teaching 'spelling', sometimes it is 'decoding sounds', sometimes it is 'word work', but these usually refer to letter/sound instruction to practice and develop knowledge and awareness of relationships between letters/sounds/words that are set apart from actually teaching reading and writing. Working on letter/sound relationships while in the act of learning to read or write is sometimes called 'sounding out' or 'learning sight words' or 'decoding words' or any manner of other active strategies that lead to making sense of letters and sounds that form words and, therefore, meaning. Truthfully, without awareness of letters and sounds and how they negotiate together, reading does not make sense at all. It is the alphabet and sounds that offer us sounds and utterances to communicate effectively - without them, we would not be nearly as efficient at communicating between humans.
So, what does that look/sound like during home reading?
One of my favourite reading resources to use with new-to-reading children is the alphabet picture book. I have a personal collection of about 60 alphabet picture books; in our Learning Commons we have many more. There are alphabet books to suit every interest or curiosity and children are drawn to them because they help make sense of why humans utter specific sounds and use letters in particular combinations to give meaning to one word.
Children often learn 'the alphabet song' from very early ages - sometimes chanting sounds rather than delineating particular words. While they don't know it at the time, they are beginning to make sense of the phonemic underpinnings of the world of reading they will soon enter. Alphabet books reinforce this concept - children quickly catch on to the idea of words with similar sounds begin with the same letter(s). And a well-written alphabet picture book offers words that have other connections as well, by theme, sound or meaning.
A little game I like to play with early readers is to have a set of alphabet cards with me as we read (you can make your own set easily - these do not have to be fancy!). Then as we read the alphabet book, we stop and search through the stack to find the corresponding letter for each page of the book, usually found at the beginning of each word. As we search for and find the letter, children are developing discriminatory sight data as well as sound differentiation for the English alphabet, reinforcing this information with each search through the alphabet letters. Before long, children 'know' their alphabet as more than the song but can refer to the song as an organizational strategy for making sense of a 26-letter alphabet in order from beginning to end, as it usually appears in each alphabet book.
Alphabet books from my childhood tended to be random 'a is for apple, b is for ball' kind of picture books, very simple demonstrations of direct correlation between the letters of the alphabet and the first sound of words. Today's beautiful alphabet picture books - at least the ones I like the best - are usually about something in particular - a theme such as dinosaurs or Nova Scotia or weather. These more elaborate alphabet books offer information as a hook for children, to pique curiosity or offer new information either through text, picture, diagram or icon. Young readers find these books fascinating and quickly gravitate to a particular theme or idea they are most intrigued with - at least, in my experiences with introducing many kinds of alphabet books to young readers. They can make sense of some of the writing while revelling in all the information contained in the illustrations; practice sounds and words while elevating their awareness of the world. Even the most complex alphabet book has something young readers can identify, notice and want to elaborate about when in conversation with an adult.
I believe the best home libraries for children start with a solid foundation of beautiful alphabet books that will offer invitations to explore the letters and sounds of the alphabet with gentle, provocative illustrations and text. What better way to wrap your child in the foundations of learning to read than a side-by-side multi-sensory experience with their favourite adult?
Here are a few of my favourite alphabet books to share with children (just in case you are looking for an amazing holiday gift!):
1) Alphabeasts by Wallace Edwards
2) The Alphabet by Melanie Watt
3) B is for Bluenose: A Nova Scotia Alphabet by Susan Took
4) The Dinosaur Alphabet Book by Jerry Pallotta & Ralph Masiello
5) C is for Chinook An Alberta Alphabet Book by Dawn Welykochy & Lorna Bennett
6) A Mountain Alphabet Book by Andrew Kiss & Margriet Ruurs
7) Rocky Mountain ABCs by Jocey Asnong
8) Animal Alphabet Slide & Seek the ABCs by Alex Lluch
9) The Skull Alphabet Book by Jerry Pallotta & Ralph Masiello
10) Mrs. Peanuckle's Bird Alphabet by Mrs. Peanuckle & Jessie Ford
Lorraine Kinsman, Principal