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teaching children to read
A student in a Mississippi elementary school reads a book in class. Research shows young children need explicit, systematic phonics instruction to learn how to read fluently. Credit: Terrell Clark for The Hechinger Report

Teaching kids to read isn’t easy; educators often feel strongly about what they think is the “right” way to teach this essential skill. Though teachers’ approaches may differ, the research is pretty clear on how best to help kids learn to read. Here’s what parents should look for in their children’s classroom.

How do kids actually learn how to read?

Research shows kids learn to read when they are able to identify letters or combinations of letters and connect those letters to sounds. There’s more to it, of course, like attaching meaning to words and phrases, but phonemic awareness (understanding sounds in spoken words) and an understanding of phonics (knowing that letters in print correspond to sounds) are the most basic first steps to becoming a reader.

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If children can’t master phonics, they are more likely to struggle to read. That’s why researchers say explicit, systematic instruction in phonics is important: Teachers must lead students step by step through a specific sequence of letters and sounds. Kids who learn how to decode words can then apply that skill to more challenging words and ultimately read with fluency. Some kids may not need much help with phonics, especially as they get older, but experts say phonics instruction can be essential for young children and struggling readers “We don’t know how much phonics each kid needs,” said Anders Rasmussen, principal of Wood Road Elementary School in Ballston Spa, New York, who recently led the transformation of his schools’ reading program to a research-based, structured approach. “But we know no kid is hurt by getting too much of it.”

How should your child’s school teach reading?

Timothy Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an expert on reading instruction, said phonics are important in kindergarten through second grade and phonemic awareness should be explicitly taught in kindergarten and first grade. This view has been underscored by experts in recent years as the debate over reading instruction has intensified. But teaching kids how to read should include more than phonics, said Shanahan. They should also be exposed to oral reading, reading comprehension and writing.

The wars over how to teach reading are back. Here’s the four things you need to know.

Wiley Blevins, an author and expert on phonics, said a good test parents can use to determine whether a child is receiving research-based reading instruction is to ask their child’s teacher how reading is taught. “They should be able to tell you something more than ‘by reading lots of books’ and ‘developing a love of reading.’ ” Blevins said. Along with time dedicated to teaching phonics, Blevins said children should participate in read-alouds with their teacher to build vocabulary and content knowledge. “These read-alouds must involve interactive conversations to engage students in thinking about the content and using the vocabulary,” he said. “Too often, when time is limited, the daily read-alouds are the first thing left out of the reading time. We undervalue its impact on reading growth and must change that.”

Rasmussen’s school uses a structured approach: Children receive lessons in phonemic awareness, phonics, pre-writing and writing, vocabulary and repeated readings. Research shows this type of “systematic and intensive” approach in several aspects of literacy can turn children who struggle to read into average or above-average readers.

What should schools avoid when teaching reading?

Educators and experts say kids should be encouraged to sound out words, instead of guessing. “We really want to make sure that no kid is guessing,” Rasmussen said. “You really want … your own kid sounding out words and blending words from the earliest level on.” That means children are not told to guess an unfamiliar word by looking at a picture in the book, for example. As children encounter more challenging texts in later grades, avoiding reliance on visual cues also supports fluent reading. “When they get to ninth grade and they have to read “Of Mice and Men,” there are no picture cues,” Rasmussen said.

Related: Teacher Voice: We need phonics, along with other supports, for reading

Blevins and Shanahan caution against organizing books by different reading levels and keeping students at one level until they read with enough fluency to move up to the next level. Although many people may think keeping students at one level will help prevent them from getting frustrated and discouraged by difficult texts, research shows that students actually learn more when they are challenged by reading materials.

Blevins said reliance on “leveled books” can contribute to “a bad habit in readers.” Because students can’t sound out many of the words, they rely on memorizing repeated words and sentence patterns, or on using picture clues to guess words. Rasmussen said making kids stick with one reading level — and, especially, consistently giving some kids texts that are below grade level, rather than giving them supports to bring them to grade level — can also lead to larger gaps in reading ability.

How do I know if a reading curriculum is effective?

Some reading curricula cover more aspects of literacy than others. While almost all programs have some research-based components, the structure of a program can make a big difference, said Rasmussen. Watching children read is the best way to tell if they are receiving proper instruction — explicit, systematic instruction in phonics to establish a foundation for reading, coupled with the use of grade-level texts, offered to all kids.

Parents who are curious about what’s included in the curriculum in their child’s classroom can find sources online, like a chart included in an article by which summarizes the various aspects of literacy, including phonics, writing and comprehension strategies, in some of the most popular reading curricula.

Blevins also suggested some questions parents can ask their child’s teacher:

  • What is your phonics scope and sequence?

“If research-based, the curriculum must have a clearly defined phonics scope and sequence that serves as the spine of the instruction.” Blevins said.

  • Do you have decodable readers (short books with words composed of the letters and sounds students are learning) to practice phonics?

“If no decodable or phonics readers are used, students are unlikely to get the amount of practice and application to get to mastery so they can then transfer these skills to all reading and writing experiences,” Blevins said. “If teachers say they are using leveled books, ask how many words can students sound out based on the phonics skills (teachers) have taught … Can these words be fully sounded out based on the phonics skills you taught or are children only using pieces of the word? They should be fully sounding out the words — not using just the first or first and last letters and guessing at the rest.”

  • What are you doing to build students’ vocabulary and background knowledge? How frequent is this instruction? How much time is spent each day doing this?

“It should be a lot,” Blevins said, “and much of it happens during read-alouds, especially informational texts, and science and social studies lessons.”

  • Is the research used to support your reading curriculum just about the actual materials, or does it draw from a larger body of research on how children learn to read? How does it connect to the science of reading?

Teachers should be able to answer these questions, said Blevins.

What should I do if my child isn’t progressing in reading?

When a child isn’t progressing, Blevins said, the key is to find out why. Is it a learning challenge or is your child a curriculum casualty? This is a tough one.” Blevins suggested that parents of kindergarteners and first graders ask their child’s school to test the child’s phonemic awareness, phonics and fluency.

Parents of older children should ask for a test of vocabulary. “These tests will locate some underlying issues as to why your child is struggling reading and understanding what they read,” Blevins said. “Once underlying issues are found, they can be systematically addressed.”

“We don’t know how much phonics each kid needs. But we know no kid is hurt by getting too much of it.”

Anders Rasmussen, principal of Wood Road Elementary School in Ballston Spa, New York

Rasmussen recommended parents work with their school if they are concerned about their children’s progress. By sitting and reading with their children, parents can see the kind of literacy instruction the kids are receiving. If children are trying to guess based on pictures, parents can talk to teachers about increasing phonics instruction.

“Teachers aren’t there doing necessarily bad things or disadvantaging kids purposefully or willfully,” Rasmussen said. “You have many great reading teachers using some effective strategies and some ineffective strategies.”

What can parents do at home to help their children learn to read?

Parents want to help their kids learn how to read but don’t want to push them to the point where they hate reading. “Parents at home can fall into the trap of thinking this is about drilling their kid,” said Cindy Jiban, a former educator and current principal academic lead at NWEA, a research-based non-profit focused on assessments and professional learning opportunities. “This is unfortunate,” Jiban said. “It sets up a parent-child interaction that makes it, ‘Ugh, there’s this thing that’s not fun.’” Instead, Jiban advises making decoding playful. Here are some ideas:

  • Challenge kids to find everything in the house that starts with a specific sound.
  • Stretch out one word in a sentence. Ask your child to “pass the salt” but say the individual sounds in the word “salt” instead of the word itself.
  • Ask your child to figure out what every family member’s name would be if it started with a “b” sound.
  • Sing that annoying “Banana fana fo fanna song.” Jiban said that kind of playful activity can actually help a kid think about the sounds that correspond with letters even if they’re not looking at a letter right in front of them.
  • Read your child’s favorite book over and over again. For books that children know well, Jiban suggests that children use their finger to follow along as each word is read. Parents can do the same, or come up with another strategy to help kids follow which words they’re reading on a page.

Giving a child diverse experiences that seem to have nothing to do with reading can also help a child’s reading ability. By having a variety of experiences, Rasmussen said, children will be able to apply their own knowledge to better comprehend texts about various topics.

This story about teaching children to read was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Letters to the Editor

13 Letters

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  1. The first sentence of Anders Rasmussen’s highlighted quote is so true. The second sentence is absolutely false. “We don’t know how much phonics each kid needs. But we know no kid is hurt by getting too much of it.” There are several examples from research studies and evidence from many years of practice indicating that too much phonics or over emphasis on phonics in K-2 can create readers (Grades 3-8) who become “word callers,” who fail to think (comprehend) as they are reading and tend to fall behind in reading after second grade.

    Phonics and phonemic awareness instruction is important for the challenges of helping all children reach grade level expectations in reading. However, rather than continuing to highlight the reading “wars” and the different “camps,” we should focus on what is most essential, research-proven instructional practices for meeting the wide variety of children who are learning to read. Some children bring more and others less to the learning table. As teachers we want to find out first what children already know and target instruction to fill in gaps while keeping the main reason readers read at the forefront – to understand and enjoy stories, to gain information, and to converse and/ or write about it.

    Like many other good things in life, phonics instruction can indeed be harmful when overdone and as a single solution. When we lump all kids together we unintentionally assume learning to read is exactly the same for all and mask the wide variety of children who are learning how to read, especially English language learners and other children with various difficulties who struggle to learn.

  2. This is a good article. What I’d like to see is information about what parents/families can and should be doing during a child’s early years. You should be in touch with Joan Kelley, a former elementary teacher, and researcher for over a decade at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the Language Diversity and Literacy Development Research Group. She is the founder and CEO of Abound Parenting, an app for parents that empowers parents to use everyday moments to raise strong readers – without ever putting a screen in front of a child.

  3. Multisensory learning happens when sight, sound, and touch are used to learn new information. Children learn best when they can use all their senses. When children can see a concept as it is explained, hear about it, and then do it with hands-on activities, it is easier for them to learn and retain the new information. So yes, it’s a must for you, as a parent, to read to your kid out loud. Other thing is to develop concentration and increases patience, which is very helpful not only in this matter. I can recommend chess as a great tool for this. There are planty activities, you can do with chess, alone.

  4. Reading is a primary learning skill for kids. Reading enables the children to learn about the world around them. Thanks for sharing a very informative article that help to parents how they help the child to learn read.

  5. Not a fan of the the inconsistent use of research-supporter statements in this article!
    What we know from research is that too heavy of a focus on phonics – when a student’s own data shows they already have those phonics skills mastered- is harmful to students- it doesn’t match what we know about good instruction in general- that it should be matched to student needs. What a poor practice to promote!
    Also- the newest wave of reading wars has brought decodeables to the forefront as the answer to all teachers woes. But research has in fact not shown that these types of books actually provide those kind of results. In phonics studies comparing the growth of students – some using decodeables and some not – there was no significant difference to show that they help students actually be better readers. Let’s stop spreading practices as “best practices” when they have no research to support them. That’s how we got to this place in reading instruction to begin with!
    Lastly, exposing young children to texts that are on grade level when they are behind grade level- sounds in theory like a good plan so we don’t “hold them back.” However, if you’re promoting exclusively sounding out of words rather than guessing- how do you propose a teacher would actually support a reader who doesn’t have the decoding skills to read a on-grade level text! If the goal is to always look at the patterns of letters inside a word to decode – and we know that these below-level readers can’t decode the patterns in grade level texts- how would they ever read the text itself?
    In strategies like choral reading, paired reading, or echo reading – students are given access to ways of reading on-level texts, however they certainly aren’t decoding anything!

  6. After Kindergarten my son could not read at all! his teacher said he would never be able to keep up or catch up in 1st grade & wanted to hold him back… then we found Children Learning Reading Program. When he started 1st grade, he is reading and the teacher is ABSOLUTELY AMAZED and RAVES about his progress.

  7. Thank you for sharing this! Reading is very important. I actually enrolled my kids under the Early Reading for Beginners enrichment program of an International School in the Philippines ( ) to enhance their Reading Comprehension. In their class, as young as 3 yrs old, the child should already know how to ready 3 to 4-letter words. I am actually very happy with my children’s progress in reading and hope other parents here should also appreciate the importance of Reading. Thank you for sharing this article and more power to your blog!

  8. I’ve been using this app that I found in the Apple app store, Raising Readers, and it has helped my son so much! We only do it 15 minutes a day, which is all I really have time for. It guides me as a parent at the beginning of the lesson on how to instruct him through the activity, so it is super simple. He was really having trouble blending and sounding out words, but he’s got it now!

  9. This has been very informative. It can definitely be a challenge teaching kids how to read. I also think that including some educational videos can be helpful. You mentioned testing the kids for vocabulary. What kind of tests do you recommend?

  10. Hopefully this extraordinary article will help raise awareness about how important it is to use the right teaching methodologies for learning to read. In general, parents tend to assume that children will have it at school. It makes sense, right? Why wouldn’t that be the case?

    Unfortunately, it’s not. Why? Long story short: there’s still a war when it comes to reading instruction, and our children pay the price.

    While it is true that some kids will learn to read regardless of the reading methodology used to teach them, many of them will struggle if they are not trained on phonics and phonemic awareness.

    Unfortunately, these struggles so many children face are left untreated for a long time, and labelled as “normal.” Parents are reassured: “Some children need more time than others. S/he’ll catch up.”

    In the meantime, nothing is done, no help is given. These children try to get by avoiding to read at all costs, and by guessing, memorizing words and resorting to all sorts of tricks when they absolutely have to read. Unfortunately, they also feel really stupid inside them because they know very well that they are not really reading, they are pretending.

    Then, finally, when reading intervention is suggested… Careful again with the methodologies used!

    When someone tells you children will learn to read by reading lots of books and by fostering a passion for reading… Distrust! It sounds great, but it is likely to hide lots of mumbo jumbo.

    While sharing your enthusiasm for reading is an honourable thing to do, the first step is teaching the sounds, and then the code. Sharing enthusiasm is great, as long as we don’t forget the rest!

    This path may be more boring, more more-time consuming for teachers and way more structured in the beginning… It may even seem that some children don’t even need this sort of instruction (some children just seem wired for the sounds.) However, so many DO need it! It will be the cornerstone of their reading success, a solid foundation for lifelong literacy.
    Doing things right from the beginning pays off in the long run. Unfortunately, students who don’t read well by the 3rd grade are 4 times likelier to be high school dropouts. Besides, they are also way more likely to feel frustrated, distracted, socially isolated and even present aggressive behaviors…

    Laura, from the project

  11. The question is “what is reading ?”and reading is the decoding of sounds in the form of letters that together operate to convey an idea or object for a reader. If a reader cannot master this they will not read. When a reader has mastered phonemic awareness this allows them to achieve decoding of words, then it is time to read by understanding how those words when strung together convey ideas that readers think about and respond to.
    Unfortunately, our culture has become so enamored of the nonsensical back and forth that if we can just exercise some alignment and expression with our camp then we believe we’ve achieved something; almost never student mastery of reading though. It’s not about the camp we’re in or how much or how little phonics are necessary but what the practice we call reading is, and requires. Mastery of phonemic awareness is required to read and to read well and frequently enough that one is willing to engage texts to develop the facility to recognize anomalies in decoding load such as words violating phonemic rules you’ve learned and those following the rules of other languages (which one would be able to read having mastered phonemes- though not always with the appropriate accent or pronunciation). Thus, it is evident the question here is not phonetic focus or no but to what degree does phonetic focus undergird and serve as the foundation for what we know as reading- vs. to what degree do some people support the open falsehood that reading is the guessing of so many words that one comes to know the sounds of all the words they’ve guessed in the span of (hmmm how long does it take to guess enough words to read?) 3-5 years. Can we stop? All beginning readers need to master phonetic awareness to develop the capacity to become readers that eventually discuss and engage text. Phonetic mastery is the foundation; and when developing readers have it, we may move forward to greater reading task such as sentences, paragraphs, passages, and full length texts of all kinds considering how each part builds toward the next. Guessing is NOT a part of the task of reading and has no place in an instructional framework for readers- it is clearly- easier and more fun for those less interested in supporting learners in facing the basic vicissitudes of the learning process but just because some people don’t want to do it does not make it an appropriate topic for debate. Guessing is not reading and reading is not guessing- recognizing letters as sounds is not a natural process and must be systematically taught to young learners if we want them to understand and apply its processes successfully.

  12. I have been asked to teach English for one hour a week to two Japanese 8-year-old boys who have had almost no instruction in reading so far. I have found the information in the Hechinger Report to be very useful for me to learn the basics of how to help them start learning to read and I would appreciate any further suggestions anyone can give me.

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