You Need /r/ /ee/ /d/ to Read
A look at how emerging readers turn squiggles into sounds and then words.
The students sitting criss-cross applesauce in a circle on the purple rug are looking at their teacher, Brooke McCaffrey, Ed.M.’07. They’re mostly quiet, having just spent a few minutes getting their wiggles out. It’s early in the school year, about a week shy of October. These 23 kindergarteners at the Prospect Hill Academy Charter School in Somerville, Mass., are all emerging readers, meaning they’re just beginning to learn the skills needed to read on their own.
“We’re going to sing our letter-sound song, so that we can learn our letter names and the sounds they make,” McCaffrey announces. “We do this so that we can learn how to … what?”
In unison, the students yell, “Read!” Then on her cue, they launch into a song that mentions every letter, every letter sound, and a corresponding word: A, /a/, apple, for example. When they get to H, McCaffrey stops the singing.
“Hold up, hold up,” she says. “H sounds like ‘ha’, like you’ve been running really hard. Let’s try it again.” The students practice the sound a few times and then launch back into the song. McCaffrey stops them again at P, reminding them to puff out with their mouths. As the song ends, the students sing, “I know all my letter sounds and you do, too!” They beg her to let them sing it again, which they do, this time even louder.
During the next 40 minutes, the class will recite a poem about an apple, learn a dozen new words for various moods (glad, joyful, frustrated), sing a short jingle about how we read text (“Top to bottom, left to right … ”), and come up with pairs of rhyming words (“sad” and “mad,” “train” and “chain,” “bee” and “pea”). One of the final exercises circles back to the idea of letter names versus letter sounds.
“I have a surprise for you!” McCaffrey says, after telling her “superstars” how well they did that morning. She pulls out a big card with a playful monster on the front.
“What’s his name?” she asks.
“Mr. Groan!” the students shout.
“And his sound?”
“That’s right. Just like letters, Mr. Groan has a name and makes a sound,” McCaffrey says. “The letter C has a name. It’s C. But it doesn’t walk around all day going C, C, C. Who remembers what sound this letter makes?”
The chorus of /k/ /k/ /k/ begins.
Prereading and Parents
To the casual observer, it might look like these young students are simply having fun with sounds and silly songs. They don’t look like they are reading at all. But as their teacher fully understands with her purposefully planned exercises, learning to read doesn’t just happen. Unlike learning to walk or talk — “experience expectant” skills that Professor Jack Shonkoff says the brain is expecting to develop — reading is “experience dependent,” meaning the brain isn’t wired to automatically figure it out. It’s a human invention, and somehow, some way, we have to learn how to read, starting with sounds and silly songs.
So how exactly do we do this?
The reading process begins, of course, way before kids even walk into classes like McCaffrey’s. As Shonkoff, a former pediatrician and current director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, says, “kids learn to understand words before they speak them.” As soon as parents and caregivers pick up a cooing baby and coo back, the process begins, with the baby beginning to understand the back and forth of conversation.
By the time a child is 18 months old, Shonkoff writes in his book, From Neurons to Neighborhoods, their world is a language explosion, acquiring, on average, about nine new words a day, every day, through preschool.
Lecturer Pamela Mason, director of the Ed School’s Language and Literacy Program and the Jeanne Chall Reading Lab, says adults continue nurturing this explosion with their babies, toddlers, and preschoolers by singing songs, making up rhymes, reading poetry out loud, telling fables, asking questions, and playing with language. Introducing new words and using full sentences (“yes, we do need to put on our raincoats” rather than “yes, sure”) also expands vocabulary, which not only helps students when they are first learning to read at around the ages of five and six, but also later in elementary school when they take the next steps and work on comprehension and fluency — the ability to read text accurately and quickly.
And of course, reading books to children every day is also critical, and not only exciting stories, but simple ones, too.
“In the process of learning to read, there is a stage where you have to forefront the form because you’re not yet automatic at seeing the sequence of letters and turning them into words,” says Professor Catherine Snow, an expert on language and literacy. “So it’s very valuable to have these ‘dumb’ books. An example is Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss. The focus is on rhyme and the book is sufficiently predictable, so kids can memorize words or use the picture to figure out what the words are.”
And, as Mason points out, prereaders, as they’re often called, make learning to read more than just an exercise.
“Dr. Seuss is fun. I want literacy to be fun,” she says. “We sometimes forget about the joy of communicating with one another.”
Squiggles and Sounds
By the time children enter formal education, it is estimated that they know the meaning of about 5,000 to 6,000 words when they hear them, and can probably recognize in print a handful of easily memorized “sight words” — words like “the” and “to” and “stop” that pop up often in books and on signs and menus.
The next step in learning to read is to make the connection between oral and print. Erin Trumble Keleher, Ed.M.’06, a reading specialist at the Charles Haskell Elementary School in Edmond, Okla., starts by giving each of her students an assessment to see how much, if any, they know in this area. With kindergarteners, she’ll have them identify the front and back of a book or show her where you start reading on a page. She’ll have them write their name.
“I might show them the letters of the alphabet and have them provide the letter name, or show them the letters of the alphabet and have them tell me the sound that each letter makes,” she says.
It’s these letter sounds that teachers initially spend a lot of time on with emerging readers. Called phonemes, these sounds are a part of phonemic awareness — the academic term for understanding that letters and words are made of sounds. Initially, no print is involved, it’s only oral. A teacher might say three words to students — “rice,” “ball,” and “rocket” — and ask which two start with the same sound. A student might be told a word like “pen” and asked to find other objects in the room that start with the same sound.
Emerging readers then need to make the connection between sound and the arbitrary, visual squiggles we call letters. With phonics, students move from knowing that “pen” and “pig” start with the same letter sound, to learning that the letter name is P, written as P and p, and the letter sound is /p/, which we puff out as “peh.”
Unfortunately, making these connections isn’t necessarily easy, at least at first, and especially for children with dyslexia or who struggle with language. As David Sousa, author of How the Brain Learns to Read writes, “reading is probably the most difficult task we ask the young brain to undertake.” For starters, the letters of the alphabet are abstract and the sounds they represent are not natural parts of how we speak.
As Assistant Professor Jennifer Thomson, whose research focuses on reading difficulties, says, “speech is a continuous stream. We think about sounds like /a/ and /b/, but in speech, there’s no discreet cut between those sounds when we talk. And everyone’s way of saying /a/ also varies. It’s a complex task, really.”
Making it even harder is that while there are 26 letters in the alphabet, there are about 44 sounds. A word like “big” has three letters and three phonemes: /b/ /i/ /g/. But a word like “chop” has four letters and three phonemes: /ch/ /o/ /p/. There are also five vowels but about a dozen vowel sounds. It can be particularly tricky when two vowels (or two consonants) are together: the O in “tone” sounds different than the two Os in “toot.” The S and the H in “ship” need to be sounded out together.
“Children with difficulties often have trouble differentiating sounds,” Thomson says. “They may hear A as ‘aaah’ or ‘aack.’” It’s especially difficult with the English language, she says.
“English is a nightmare. It’s one of the languages where dyslexia is the most obvious. With a language like Finnish, the letter-sound matching is almost always consistent. A dyslexic person who speaks Finnish might be slower but would probably not make as many mistakes.”
And this really pushes the brain. “This lack of sound-to-letter correspondence makes it difficult for the brain to recognize patterns and affects the child’s ability to spell with accuracy and to read with meaning,” writes Sousa.
Which is why experts say that emerging readers, no matter which reading philosophy is followed, have to practice, practice, practice, especially with how letters and sounds connect. Without it, as Associate Professor Nonie Lesaux points out in her recent study, Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success, students fall further and further behind with reading as they progress through elementary school. She writes that “74 percent of children whose reading skills are less than sufficient by the third grade have a drastically reduced likelihood of graduating from high school.” Even more startling, says Stephanie Crement, Ed.M.’06, a special education teacher and reading specialist at the Clarence R. Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, Mass., “Some states, including California, use third-grade reading scores to help predict prison populations for 10 years down the road.”
Luckily, once emerging readers do understand this letter-sound relationship, not only can they perhaps avoid becoming a dreadful statistic, but they can also begin to manipulate language and move forward as confident, independent readers. For example, once a child really recognizes individual sounds — /f/ as the first sound in the word “fun” — he or she can eventually:
- identify other words that begin with the same sound (/f/ in “fun,” “fix,” “fall”)
- change the first sound to make a new word (exchange /c/ in “cat” with /m/ and you get “mat”)
- delete a sound (“bug” without the /b/ is “ug”)
- group words (“bat,” “bug,” and “rock” — “rock” doesn’t belong because it doesn’t begin with the /b/ sound)
- blend several individual sounds to make a word (/j//a//m/ make the word “jam”)
- break apart a word into individual sounds (the sounds in “shirt” are /sh/ /ir/ /t/)
Light Bulbs and Brains
Parents often want to believe that when this happens, a light bulb goes off and a child suddenly “gets” how to read. This doesn’t really happen, Snow says, but it’s not usually a long process, either. She saw it with her own son, now grown, at the beach one day before he started school.
“He said, ‘Explain to me how you read,’” Snow says. “So I picked up a stick and in the wet sand started writing a list of words that rhymed: rat, pat, sat, fat, bat. Then I explained it to him. It’s not like at that point he learned to read, but he figured out, ‘Oh. I see. It’s not so hard. You look for words that you know and you look for the parts of them.’”
Just before this decoding experience, he would often “read” The Cat in the Hat, a book he had memorized word for word.
“He’d turn the pages and read it fluently, but he wasn’t actually reading,” Snow says. After the beach episode, he continued to read the book, but now he read it disfluently. “He was actually trying to decode the words. The reading went backwards, but it was because he was getting the code.”
In general, Snow says, with a typically developing child, this understanding that there is a predictable relationship between letters and sounds and reading takes about 20 hours, max.
“They either learn it in about 20 hours or they’ve got a reading problem,” she says. “Of course, some learn it in an hour, with 10 the mean. So it’s not exactly a light bulb, but it is pretty brief.”
It is estimated that between the ages of four and nine, according to the website readingrockets.com, children will master about 100 phonics rules and learn to recognize 3,000 words in print.
Most typically developing readers will begin to read independently during the first grade. Precocious readers read on their own in kindergarten, or even before. Research, however, shows there is no link between early reading and intelligence, and that those who struggle with reading often have above-average IQs. Thomson says that neuroscience research on the brains of dyslexics post-mortem showed that it wasn’t about intelligence — there were actual structural differences.
“This really sparked the idea that this could be brain based,” she says.
Which is why Crement strongly believes that every child can read. “Dyslexia can be ‘treated’ if it is identified and if the appropriate instruction is given,” she says. “My students are intelligent and can learn to read. Their brains are just wired differently so it will require a more intensive or different approach.”
Any brain, despite not being wired to read, of course plays an important role in the process. Donna Coch, Ed.M.’96, Ed.D.’99, principal investigator of the Reading Brains Lab at Dartmouth College, where she is an associate professor, says that a brain learning to read cobbles together a number of existing neural systems and networks such as the auditory, processing, and visual.
“Essentially, we — kids, parents, teachers — are constructing a brain that can read,” she says.
Maryanne Wolf, Ed.D.’79, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, says it’s a “small miracle” the way the reading brain pulls from other, existing sources. Reading, she writes, “could only come about because of the human brain’s extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain’s ability to be shaped by experience.”
But, she adds, that doesn’t mean learning to read should be rushed, as has increasingly been the case with competitive parents in the United States, where it’s not uncommon for preschoolers to begin the formal reading process. In contrast, in place like Finland, students don’t start learning to read until the age of seven, says Thomson, and then it takes only about three months to learn. “In the United States [where we start earlier],” she says, “it takes two-plus years.”
And it certainly can’t happen, no matter what age, by just using a bunch of flash cards, as guaranteed by popular your-baby-can-read TV ads. Children really do need guided instruction when their brains are ready for the task. As Wolf says, each of the neural networks and systems that a reading brain connects to first needs to be fully developed, and developed in a certain order. Otherwise, an emerging reader will struggle and become frustrated with reading, and at best, only memorize. This development is affected by something called myelin — a fatty sheath coating the axons, the primary transmission lines for the nervous system. The more myelin around the axon, the faster the nerve cells work. Although each sensory and motor region is myelinated before a person turns five — the visual nerves myelinate by six months, for example — the regions in the brain that support reading, such as the angular gyrus, which supports language comprehension, doesn’t myelinate until at least five years old, and often more slowly in boys.
So while parents and caregivers should support and nurture these systems through fun, pre-reading exercises such as making up rhymes, singing, and playing with language, they shouldn’t feel that it is a reflection of their caregiving skills if their child hasn’t mastered learning to read independently by the time the fifth birthday party rolls around. It’s a process.
As Mason points out, “We’re all, in some sense, continuing to develop our reading skills. If you gave me a book on astrophysics, I’d be sounding it out, too.”