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Making Speech Visible

FINALLY! My book, Making Speech Visible, is done and published!  It has been a major preoccupation for the last year.  I have tried to synthesize my 35 years of reading research into a simple and readable book for parents and educators.

I am 74 this year, and there comes a time when you want to put what you have learned into the hands of others.  So, Making Speech Visible is also biographical. It includes short vignettes about how I got interested in reading research and what people said to me along the way to move me in one direction or another.  I have pursued this one path most of my life—finding and communicating evidence that writing is the best path to reading.


To Teach Reading, Start with Speech

Speech is the foundation of reading, but we teach from print-to-speech, rather than from speech-to-print. A four or five year old may have difficulty generating natural curiosity about two-letter blends or the number of syllables in a word (as taught by traditional phonics instruction). Likewise, there is nothing inherently interesting about an initial or ending sound. Activities like identifying initial sounds, or clapping syllables, or counting phonemes, are isolated from meaningful words and are aimed at listening for phonemes rather than saying them.


However children are curious about how whole words get on paper because they already know a lot about spoken words. Piaget and Vygotsky both noted the role of curiosity, and observed that learning occurs when new information is linked to previously learned information. The purpose of the alphabet is to make spoken words visible. Therefore, instruction in the alphabet should demonstrate how it can be used to represent (previously learned) spoken words. Start with a few letters to sound out and spell words like CAT, HAT, FAT, SAT, and then gradually introduce new words that add to the previous letters and sounds already learned. Your child will be building new neural pathways for reading closely linked to what the brain already knows about words—their pronunciation and their meaning.

Teach Reading Properly from the Beginning

Letter shapesRecent brain studies are concluding that the automation of letter-speech sound processing takes many years to develop because it is not just the learning of an association, but a neurobiological integration process involving the linking of speech and reading networks. The young reader must combine a large number of paired-associate memories (26 letter shapes, 40 speech sounds –26 more if he learns both capital and lower case shapes) and organize them in his brain in such a way that they can be combined and recombined in immediate and instantaneous access to word pronunciations and word meanings.

To achieve automatic visual word recognition, these networks must begin to accomplish with one stroke of attention what originally required dozens. The young brain must systematize the work to be done and must develop a system of automatic habits corresponding to the system of tasks, because reading (unlike speech) does not come pre-wired. As reading is first introduced, the brain organizes and stores the information wherever it is processed. If the instruction involves pronouncing and segmenting whole words, and linking letter shapes to those spoken sounds in a systematic way, these new networks, over time and with practice, will be linked efficiently to word pronunciations and meanings.

Therefore it is important that early instruction in phoneme awareness and phonics encourages children to attend to their own physical production of phonemes as they segment words, and builds new reading skills on the neural foundation of existing speech networks.

The Danger of Teaching “Sight Words”

I read a question from a parent yesterday (on “Classroom Talk”), asking how to help her child learn the long list of sight words that the first grade teacher gave her child. This is my response:

“Children in first grade should not be given lists of sight words to memorize. They should be learning to decode (sound out) and encode (write) regularly spelled words, NOT MEMORIZE THE VISUAL APPEARANCE OF WORDS.

First graders should be learning to identify the sounds in words they say and link letters to those sounds. This is called phoneme awareness and phonics, and these are the critical skills for becoming a good reader. Your first grader should read words like GO and SEE by knowing the sounds that those letters stand for, and sounding out the words. As he does this often, his brain will start to automatically recognize the words. This will enable him to sound out and read or write any regularly spelled word independently. He will not have to visually memorize lists of words, except for those few that are “outlaw words” (don’t follow the rules), and he should only tackle these after he’s mastered phoneme awareness and phonics.

If he is not learning phoneme awareness and phonics at school, teach him at home. Try asking him to read some nonsense words like MUN or SAF. If he can’t do this, ask his teacher whether she is teaching him to sound out words. If you want him to be a good reader in second grade, teach him these skills NOW yourself. There’s lots of good information on the web about how to become aware of the sounds in words and link those sounds to letters.”

Phoneme Awareness vs Phonics?

The National Institute for Literacy has some good tips for teaching phoneme awareness (being able to identify the separate sounds in words) a critical skill for learning to read.

National Institute for Literacy

However, they suggest that 20 hours of class time should suffice for teaching phonemic awareness. Since close to 70% of American 4th and 8th graders cannot read proficiently, and since phoneme awareness and phonics are the two most frequently found deficits in children who struggle to read, perhaps we need to re-evaluate whether students are really learning this skill in the 20 hours of instruction they receive. What do you think? Are phoneme awareness and phonics separate skills? Or should they be linked so that children understand why they are asked to become aware of the sounds in words?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

A Simple Gift That Lasts for a Lifetime: Teach Your Kids to Read

At this time of gift-giving, when money is tight, why not give your child a gift that won’t cost you anything but time and love, and will last a lifetime.  Here is a recipe for getting started:

There are 18 FREE decodable booklets in pdf form on our website.

Print out the first booklet “IS IT A CAT?”  Look at the first book together, and read it to your child.  But don’t try to have your child memorize the appearance of words or “read” the book until you have played together making words.

The secret of learning to read is understanding how to make words first! If your child can arrange letter tiles to create the words in the first booklet, he or she is well on the way to understanding how letters are used to represent the sounds in words—and that is the key to reading! (more…)

Are you teaching phonics backwards?

“One of the most fundamental flaws found in almost all phonics programs, including traditional ones, is that they teach the code backwards.  That is, they go from letter to sound instead of from sound to letter.”

Louisa Moats, 1998

What do you think about this quote from Louisa Moats?


How do you teach phonics? Method A or B?  Why?

A. Print-to-Speech. Letters-to-sounds. Decoding.

Teach the alphabet song.

Associate 26 visual letters with their names.

Then teach letter sounds.

Decode a familiar word together, like CAT by identifying each letter, saying the sound that is associated with that letter, and blending the sounds together.  If the blended sounds resemble the word, the word is decoded as CAT.

Use flash cards to practice letter names, and words.

B. Speech-to-Print.  Sounds-to-letters. Encoding.

Start with a familiar spoken word, like CAT

Segment together the three sounds in the word.

From a few letter tiles, find the letters that stand for those sounds. Arrange the tiles to represent (encode) the sequence of sounds in CAT. Mix up the letters until the child arranges them correctly. Read the word. Discuss other words in the same family, like FAT or HAT.  By working with other Consonant-Vowel-Consonant words, eventually the child learns the letters that represent the 40 sounds of English.  Encode words first, then decode (read) what has been written.

How do YOU teach early reading?   Let’s have a discussion!

Learning (not memorizing) will make reading FUN

This blog post from Imagination Soup suggests as the first of 5 ideas for kids who hate to read:

“1. MODEL. Read the page or sentences first.  Have your child repeat.”

This strategy may help a child memorize the appearance of the words.  It does not give a child tools to decipher words on his own.

Research shows that children need to learn phoneme awareness (to identify each sound in a word) and phonics (to associate each of those 40 sounds with the letter(s) that stand for that sound).  Then they can sound-out words on their own.  The next paragraphs explain why I think it’s important for parents and teachers to understand this research:

kids readingIf a child hates reading, perhaps it is because the way he is being taught sets up inefficient pathways in the brain. Inefficient processing makes reading hard work, and not fun (no matter how interesting the subject matter). (more…)

Assessing Your Child’s Phonics Skills

CharactersChildren sometimes do well on reading tests in first or second grade because they are good at memorizing the visual appearance of words. You think they are doing fine!

However, when they get to third grade, they may start experiencing more difficulty because they encounter many more words that begin to look alike. If they have not learned to “sound-out” words using phonics skills, they will not be able to decode new words independently, and they may have more and more difficulty as reading becomes more complex. Guessing from context or pictures no longer works if there are too many gaps in a sentence to comprehend the overall meaning. If guessing becomes a strategy, children often begin to feel uncomfortable about reading, because they are not experiencing success. Their confidence lags, and their interest and curiosity can turn to frustration.

Nonsense Words

Try this simple test to assess whether a child is using phonics and knows how to sound-out new words. The words at the right are nonsense words. Cover the answers and ask the child to read the non-words on this page. The correct pronunciation is suggested in the parentheses. Listen carefully to the pronunciation. When children miss more than three, or take a long time to figure out each word, they need more practice with encoding and decoding words and non-words. The use of phonics should be automatic and unconscious, like riding a bicycle.

If you have our Read, Write & Type software, you can also insert the Spaceship Challenge CD, sign in as a GUEST, and ask children to play Level 2. If they have difficulty naming the pictures and identifying the sounds, or if they do poorly on reading comprehension or spelling, they will benefit from support with the extra activities and games suggested in the day-to-day lessons from our Read, Write & Type activity book. Download it for free on our website, and try practicing with your child today.

To download the activity book in PDF format, look for the link on our website, it’s number 7 on the list of “Read, Write & Type Learning System (RWTLS) PDF Documents”.

Storing Reading In the Closets of the Brain

closetThe most common way to introduce children to the alphabet code is to link letters-to-sounds in order to decipher or “decode” words on a page—that is, to read.  Children are shown letters or clusters of letters and are told that those visual squiggles on a page represent sounds or words.  But starting with the visual squiggles is putting the cart before the horse. The brain will organize reading better if we reverse the process and link sounds-to-letters instead!

The brain of a newborn is already listening to sounds and trying to make sense of them. Very young children need to have lots of experience listening to spoken words, watching adults or siblings as they speak, and responding to the speech they hear by using their own voices. As the brain builds its capacity for speaking and understanding speech, it organizes a vast data bank of the sounds of words, the meaning of those words, and the complex motor commands that are required for saying those words.  These elements are so well organized that this information can be accessed instantly.

The left half of the newborn brain, like a closet, comes with two built-in “shelves” for storing these important elements of communication—the ability to receive meaningful words (UNDERSTAND) and the ability to express (SAY) meaningful words. Humans have been talking for so many thousands of years that our brains have evolved to set aside these two locations—the UNDERSTAND shelf and the SAY shelf– for this specific purpose. These shelves automatically start piling up with vocabulary as babies learn new words. The more the better!


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