Reading / literacy development

Learning to read is a very complex activity that some find easy while others find challenging. There are many different steps that a child needs to go through to learn their reading skills and when there is a delay or deficit at any point in their reading development, learning is effected. Understanding where and what the possible delays may be is essential in supporting your student with their learning.

It is important to remember that learning to read is not just about letters and sounds. It is based on emergent literacy starts within the home environment through exposure to language, culture, reading stories, literacy symbols (letters, logos, numbers etc.). This is not necessarily an automatic process and children need to be guided, nurtured and focused on all areas of literacy. Incidental learning calls for:

  1. Something to get it started, such as someone markedly pointing out and reading environmental print.
  2. Something to sustain it, such as a constant reminder to look for known elements of print.
  3. Something to focus it, such as a gentle directing away form the non-examples.                   (Eloff & Ebersohn, 2004)

With this being said, the following points  regarding literacy education are also important to note:

  • The single most influential factor that contributes to the emergence of literacy is the level of language that a child bring to the activities and experiences involved. 
  • Literacy must truly permeate an environment for that environment to fully support the emergent literacy of its children. 
  • Learning situations must be designed so that each learner will be challenged to acquire skills and knowledge necessary for performing literacy.
  • The development of reading and writing proficiency is not ‘an assembly line process’. Direct instruction in ‘how to read and write’ only is of limited value. 
  • Understanding text does not necessarily result form know how to read words. The process requires the interaction of personal meanings and knowledge with those who inherent in the text.
  • Similarly, producing coherent text depends more on the interaction of personal intent, knowledge and thinking than on knowing how to spell and write specific words.     

(adapted by Eloff and Ebersohn, 2004, in “Keys to Educational Psychology)

Reading development stages

The first stage of reading is Emergent Reading/literacy. In this stage readers:

  • begin to understand that print and visual texts convey a message or a story
  •  begin to use the pictures to tell their own story or to predict what might happen
  • may role play reading or rely on memory to reread familiar stories
  • recognise that text is directional
  • begin to recognise some words in various contexts
  • are able to discuss what is happening in the text as well as predict what is likely to happen.

The second stage is Early Reading. In this stage, readers demonstrate the following:

  • they are knowledgeable about most print conventions
  • they will use context and letter sound cues to make guess words and self correct themselves
  • they will read familiar texts with confidence
  • they are able to make personal connections and are beginning to question and comment on text

Readers then go into the Transitional phase of reading development. this is when:

  • they become more independent in reading and select their own stories to read
  • take meaning from the text through a variety of strategies
  • read longer texts that are necessarily supported by images
  • can make inferences from words and pictures
  • they are able to respond personally and are developing the ability to respond critically and aesthetically.

Once all the above are achieved, readers enter the Fluent stage of reading development. Here they:

  • automatically integrate cueing systems
  • have developed an extensive vocabulary
  • they use strategies to construct meaning from unfamiliar words

How is reading taught?

There are several approaches to the way in which reading is taught. For example, there is whole word, whole language, and phonetic approach all of which have their own way of teaching reading. But at the end of the day, every child is different and a teaching method may suit one child but not the other. There is no magical formula to guarantee reading success but having a good understanding of the core components is essential when trying to support those children who are finding the process of learning to read challenging. Below is a basic break down of the core processes involved in reading.

In order for a child to read successfully, there are four components that need to be mastered with regards to their phonological skill development – any difficulties with one of them usually results in difficulties in learning to read. These 4 components are:

  1. Proficient letter-sound knowledge
  2. Proficient phonological awareness (basic and advanced)
  3. Phonological blending
  4. Vocabulary/phonological long term memory

After learning the letter-sounds, the phonemic awareness skills that are learnt include rhyming (cat, hat, mat), alliteration (big blue ball) and segmentation (being able to identify beginning and end sounds of a word). Generally, these skills begin in Grade R and should have been mastered by the end of grade 1. These skills are also essential for spelling.

Advanced phonological awareness continues to develop until about grade 3 or 4. Tests that involve manipulating phonemes, such as deleting, substituting, or reversing phonemes within words, appear to tap into this advanced level of phonological awareness/ proficiency. Advanced phonemic awareness appears to be needed for efficient sight vocabulary development.

Phonological blending is part of phonological awareness but instead of splitting the sounds in the word, the child now has to join the sounds together (phonological synthesis). Only when both analysis and blending skills are mastered does reading proficiency begin to develop. Sight words develop as they go along and are put into the long term memory. Sight words are learnt through “orthographic mapping” which is the process they use to store a word in their long term memory i.e it becomes a sight word. Orthographic mapping proposes that we use the pronunciations of words that are already stored in long-term memory as the anchoring points for the orthographic sequences (letters) used to represent those pronunciations. Efficient orthographic mapping requires good letter-sound proficiency as well as advanced phonemic proficiency.

“As these more advanced phonemic awareness skills develop, there is a dramatic increase in the speed and efficiency with which students develop their sight vocabularies. The more words that are added to the sight vocabulary, the more fluent their reading becomes. Their reading fluency increases because their word-level reading is more effortless and “transparent,” allowing for greater focus to be placed on reading comprehension.”

“Children taught by the classic whole-word or whole language approaches will naturally develop the skills needed for orthographic mapping, in spite of the teaching approach. They will discover that they can quickly add words to their sight vocabulary via the connection-forming process inherent in orthographic mapping. They will find this process quite natural and effective, and far superior to trying to memorize words as unanalyzed wholes (whole-word approach) or trying to rely heavily on context to determine words (whole language approach).”Kilpatrick, David A. (2015-08-10). Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties (Essentials of Psychological Assessment) (Kindle Locations 2763-2765). Wiley. Kindle Edition.)