How do children learn how to read? This is a tricky one. Different children learn in different ways, arguably due to many environmental factors. There are also different methods of teaching reading that have a powerful influence on the student’s’ individual learning processes.
At the moment, there are arguably 3 notable schools of thought on how children learn to read — or more appropriately, how they should learn to read.
One method of teaching introduces reading to children by teaching them “language as a whole”. This is also the name of that particular method.
Another method of teaching, on the other hand, teaches children to learn by dissection, sounding-out and combination. This is the phonics method, named for the individual sounds of the alphabet’s letters.
Finally, yet another method of teaching involves no teaching at all! More precisely, it consists of allowing children to teach themselves how to read and encouraging them to do that through their environment. This is from the Sudbury school of thought.
In the main, the language as a whole and phonics methods are the main teaching methods for reading today. The Sudbury school’s method is still the far less common one, so we should probably take it up first.
In Sudbury centers, children are allowed to learn how to read at whatever age they want. Thus, children in these centers can already be as old as 11 by the time they learn how to read. Most of them learn much earlier than that, however.
This method allows children to learn at their own pace and only when they themselves desire to learn a skill, which may explain why many of the children who teach themselves to read this way tend to pick up reading very quickly. They do it of their own volition and with agendas of their own, after all: agendas that no adult could force into them with the same effect. That sort of motivation tends to produce results.
But could not a student simply opt not to learn reading at all? Yes, in fact. Sudbury proponents argue that possibility is lessened, anyway, by the immersion of students in an environment where literacy is a pervasive feature. Text and literacy surround them; the latter almost becomes infective, in a way.
This is especially so at a time when people are constantly checking web pages, social network accounts and messages, and so on. Students thus find motivation to read all around them, all the time.
Because of the emphasis on the individual here, it can be a bit hard to talk about how students learn to read using this technique. Some pick it up by asking others how to write things they hear all the time or want to express. Others do it by what appears to be environmental osmosis. The children teach themselves in different ways.
The Sudbury school’s attitude to teaching reading may be a bit unusual, but it has produced some good results. That having been admitted, most people still prefer the standard methods, which are not without merit themselves.
The Standard Methods
The language as a whole and phonic methods of teaching reading are the ones that still predominate in schools and among parents. The former basically focuses on helping children learn to read by finding meaning in text. Thus its proponents use a great many storybooks in their lessons.
Phonics teachers, on the other hand, focus on reducing the written word into smaller components before putting it back together again: written words are broken down into sounds that are combined again to produce a word that can be recognized as well as read out. Children learn how to “split apart” words into smaller pieces here as opposed to learning “whole words” as in the other method. Classic phonics courses are rather more regimented in their learning approaches than language as a whole counterparts, with a greater emphasis on lessons.
Which of the two is better? It is a matter of perspective, really, but in at least one way, the phonics method has won. Research has indicated that it works better on most children — compared to the language as a whole method, anyway. It tends to work better too on younger ones, which makes it a good choice for parents who would prefer their children to read earlier.
But does this mean phonics is “the only way to go”?
Compromises and Combinations
Nowadays, most experts in the field will tell you that the best way to teach reading is actually something of a chimera; taking elements from various methods. Consider the popular Children Learning Reading course some parents now use to teach very young children to read, for example. Its base is solidly in the phonics method camp, yet it also allows for some recognition of children’s individual learning rates. It uses storybooks as paraphernalia very often as well, in line with the language as a whole method.
There is no reason to exclude techniques from other methods when you are trying to teach your child. The fact is that a lot of children are actually quite flexible, too, even in their learning — they learn things in more ways than one. Thus different techniques can provide a more “rounded out” education.
A final note should be provided, however, on the fact of certain children having learning disabilities. This in no way indicates a lack of intelligence in a child: it simply means he learns in ways rather less recognizable than the ways used by the rest. These children often have some trouble learning to read with all of the aforementioned methods (probably less with the Sudbury, though). They may thus require yet other methods or forms of guidance.
There are certain ways to tell if a child is dealing with such a disability. If your child seems to have a lot of trouble sounding out unknown words (decodable ones, though, in the phonics parlance) or tends to misidentify even the words they know well, that may be an indication of it. You can have simple diagnostics exams run to check, just in case your child needs special attention.