Most of us remember reading as children – possible images may even be conjured up of us sitting on our living room floor surrounded by “Dick and Jane” books – but few remember specifically how we learned to read.
We probably understand basic rules, like i before e except after c, and know the phonemes, such as ch says /ch/. However, there is usually very little that we can explain about the structure of our language. This is because, for most, learning to read is an automatic process.
There is an area in our brains, a language factory of sorts, that handles sounds and letters, puts the sounds and letters together, and recognizes the parts and patterns of words without specific instruction. However, roughly 30% of the population does not access this part of the brain when dealing with language. That 30% must be taught how to read explicitly and systematically in order to learn how to break down words and to become fluent readers. Without proper instruction, this 30% can read only by memorizing words until they reach a point, usually around fourth grade, when their vocabulary will begin to exceed what they can memorize, and reading progress will plateau.
Since it is difficult to remember how we learned to read, it is also difficult for us to then know how to teach someone else to read. Again, around 70% of students will be able to learn to read regardless of the reading instruction they receive, but that 30% must be taught to read systematically and explicitly. Teachers must be trained in how to do this to be effective and to help all students become efficient readers.
When we teach math, there is a very clear method and order of instruction. We must teach our 1s before we can teach our 5s or our times tables. We start with the simplest concepts and build from there. This is a logical and effective mode of instruction. Why, then, is it such a foreign concept to approach reading in the same way? We should not approach reading instruction haphazardly or from a holistic perspective. It makes sense that it is extremely effective and easy for students to follow the basics of reading, if instruction begins with the simplest concepts and then builds to more-complex concepts in an explicit fashion. This method has now been proven through research, and more schools and teachers are seeing the benefits of teaching reading this way.
Everyone, even automatic readers, can benefit from understanding the “why” behind our language. A systematic, explicit phonics program provides students with the “why.” It empowers them with useful reading strategies to handle unfamiliar words rather than forcing them to guess and memorize the word for future use.
Several studies have been conducted to reveal the best way to teach reading. The report from the National Reading Panel stated: “Overwhelming evidence strongly supports the concept that explicitly and systematically teaching phonics in the classroom significantly improves students’ reading and spelling skills. (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000. Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implication for Reading Instruction: Reports of the Sub-Groups. NIH Publication No. 00-4754. Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office.)
This and other studies support that systematic and explicit phonics instruction is the most effective type of reading instruction. This type of instruction helps students understand the structure of our language, and it is essential to the success of students with language-processing disorders.
When students are taught phonics systematically and explicitly, then the process of decoding words becomes automatic, allowing students to focus on understanding what they are reading. This type of reading instruction helps all students because it is simple, logical, and allows every student the opportunity to become a successful reader from the foundation of their education. Because this type of instruction is often used as reading intervention, using it from the start prevents the need for intervention in the future.