Ready, set, learn to read

From Grade 1 to 3, children formally learn to read at school. The National Reading Panel in the US indicated, after reviewing most of the research done regarding ‘Learning-to-Read,’ that there are five structural areas that we should develop to teach a child to read successfully. These five areas are:
· Phonemic awareness
· Phonics
· Reading fluency
· Comprehension
· Vocabulary

Reading is a complex and integrated action. To help us better understand the processes taking place when we learn to read, we’ll use the picture of a growing tree, a special reading tree, to paint the picture of what is happening in the brain. We can identify the roots of this special reading tree as the strands in Scarborough’s reading rope. Roots of trees are usually under the ground, and it is not easily identifiable, but it grows deeper and stronger and has many small roots that continue to develop as the tree grows bigger and bigger.

A tree bears more and better fruit if the environment supports growth. Various physical components are a part of the readers’ interaction with the text. We can paint these as the environmental, physical, psychological, and emotional factors that can influence the tree’s growth. Although we can separately discuss these factors, they are so integrated that it is difficult to distinguish between them. At any given time, one or more of these factors can influence a reader’s ability to unearth meaning from text successfully.

The reading tree also represents the readers’ past experiences, their motivation for reading, the skills they have developed to read and understand, and their attitude towards the reading task at hand.

In relating the roots of our reading tree to Scarborough’s rope, we will find that the roots of our tree are language comprehension and word recognition as well as mental systems, visual processes, memory and thinking and reasoning skills. Phonological awareness and decoding are part of the word-recognition root system and need to become increasingly automatic. The language comprehension root system includes background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge. These must become increasingly strategic.

How does the growth that is needed to achieve effective reading happen? We are born with a natural ‘wiring’ in our brain to learn and understand spoken language. Two areas in our brain help us to understand spoken language: the sound area and the meaning area. These two areas are connected. They grow, and their connection becomes faster as we learn new sounds and begin to connect meaning to the words that we hear and learn to speak. The challenge in learning to read is that the area in the brain that sees letters as sounds and knows how to connect the ‘written sounds’ to meaning (the letterbox) is not developed and not connected to these two ‘spoken language’ areas. To build, develop and connect these areas, we need to connect neurons, develop neural pathways, and enhance these existing neural networks. The best way to do this is through explicit, structured instruction in phonics. As with any learning process, repetition, highly intensive training, timely rewards, adaptability of training, and other aspects plays an essential role in achieving success in learning to read.

Let’s take a closer look at the five structural areas in learning to read:

1. Phonemic awareness: the ability to hear and say sounds and connect these sounds to the sounds in words. Phonological awareness is a meta-cognitive skill (i.e. and awareness/ ability to think about one’s own thinking) for the sound structures of language. The critical skills here are focusing on, discriminating, remembering, and manipulating sounds at the sentence, words, syllable, and phoneme levels.

2. Phonics instruction: Phonics study the relationship between sounds and letters. There are three layers in phonics instruction: alphabetic, pattern (CVC), meaning and morphological layer. Phonics must be explicitly and systematically taught as part of an integrated literacy12:32 program. It is a critical skill in becoming literate and should be taught to a level of automaticity. The five steps in a successful progression when teaching phonics is

-> letter sounds
-> blending
-> digraphs
-> alternative graphemes
-> fluency and accuracy

First, we can hear and say the sounds in words, then we learn to blend the sounds, and after that, we learn to segment the sounds in words. Finally, we can manipulate the sounds in words by adding, deleting, or substituting phonemes. In short, we become skilled at decoding written language.

3. Reading fluency: Being able to read fluently refers to the reader becoming unglued from print. We have progressed from the phonological route to the lexical route or controlled visual reading route. We are no longer focused on oral reading development but are busy developing our reading skills towards silent fluency reading, as this is the reading skill needed for learning. When a reader can receive a tidy message at a reasonable speed and decode it almost automatically whilst understanding what they are reading, we are well on our way to ensuring they will become successful life-long readers and learners. We are now progressing to the automatic visual reading route.

4. Comprehension: Comprehension is the essence of reading. Understanding what we read includes word recognition and comprehension processes. Therefore, comprehension strategies are specific procedures that can and should be explicitly taught as a part of an integrated literacy program.

5. Vocabulary: Vocabulary instruction is part of comprehension. Word knowledge and reasoning in reading are important aspects of vocabulary development.

We learn to read up to age 9, and then we need to read to learn. To be able to read to learn, we must not only master the five structural areas of ‘learn-to-read’ but also become visually intelligent. Being visual intelligent means finding, processing, understanding, and expressing visual information. To be visually intelligent, you must be visually literate, implying you must be able to interpret, make meaning, and understand what you see. The integration of the various foundational reading skills and extended literacy strategies provides an entry point to multiple literacies and visual intelligence. Only when we’ve succeeded to grow this special reading tree to be resilient and robust will our students be able to flourish in their daily living.12:32