The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity
The A-Z of Teaching Beginning Reading

Breaking the Reading Code

All Children Can Be Taught to Read

One of the most exciting things to happen to your child between the time he enters kindergarten and the time he leaves the next spring is that he breaks the reading code. To do so he must solve the two parts of the reading puzzle: one involving spoken language, and the other involving written language.

To solve the first part of the puzzle, each would-be reader must begin to understand that spoken words come apart and that they are made up of very small bits of language. Once a child appreciates that spoken words can be pulled apart into distinct sounds, he is well on his way to solving the spoken language part of the code. For example, the word "sat" is made up of a sequence of sounds, represented by the letters, "s," or the "ssss" sound, "a," or the "aaaa" sound, and "t," or the "t" sound.

Although awareness of sounds and letters is necessary for learning to read, children need practice in reading stories. They need to apply their newly acquired skills to sounding out and decoding familar and less familar words, to reading words in sentences and in books, and to understanding the meaning of the word and the sentence.

Practice. New brain imaging technology shows the powerful positive effect of practice in creating neural circuits related to the development of what scientists call expertise of skill. Basically, the brain learns through practice. After an introduction to the specific letter-sound relationships, the next critical step is for a child to practive the words, both in isolation and then in reading simple sentences and books. Reading silently and, especially, aloud help to improve accuracy. Writing and learning to spell them also contribute to establishing accurate representations of those words in his nerual circuitry.

Sight Words. Sometimes called irregular words since they don't seem to follow a pattern and can't be sounded out, these are words such as a, is, are, one, two, said, again, been, could, the, and once. Because these words occur very often and frequently in books, they must be committed to memory so that they can be recognized on sight. They need to become a part of a child's reading vocabulary at a very early stage. Making flash cards and reviewing them regularly help a child learn these common words. Having him print his own card and say the word as he writes it often helps reinforce its pronunciation.

Writing. Once children can write letters, no matter how poorly, they can engage in a variety of writing exercises that further encourages awareness of the sounds that make up words and of how letters represent these sounds. Writing out his own name and then other common words such as cat, mom, and dad reinforces that awareness.

Spelling. Spelling is intimately linked to reading not only because sounds are being linked to letters but because words are being encoded--literally put into code instead of merely being deciphered or decoded. Invented spelling, or printing words based on the sounds children hear within the words, functions as a transitional step as kindergartners try their hand at matching letters to sounds. So, house may be spelled hws or kt for cat. A child may have the sounds down, but he may not have quite mastered the link between sounds and letters. In kindergarten that's okay.

Listening, playing, and imagining. Whether at school or at home, being surrounded by books, listening to stories read aloud, talking about the characters and events in the story, and playing with blocks or puppets all help a child develop her thinking skills and her imagnination, build her vocabulary, and become aware of the world around her. As a child encounters an unfamiliar printed word, he tries out different pronunciations: Is the i in ink pronounced like the i in ice or like the i in it? If he knows the meaning of the word ink, he is more likely to prounounce it correctly.

The larger a child's vocabulary, the more words he is going to be able to decipher and read. Consequently, it is never too early to introduce a child to new words and their meanings, which strengthen his neural model for each of the new words he encounters. Reading aloud to your child is a great way to enhance vocabulary, and has many other positive benefits for reading.

Self-confidence. This is probably the most important ingredient in ensuring that a child is ready to read and is setting out on a good path. After all is said and done, the most significant development for your child as he leaves kindergarten is how he feels about himself. A critical role of the kindergarten experience is to ensure that every child achieves some degree of success in what he does, that he receives positive comments from his teacher, and that he is encouraged. That will keep him motivated to read.

Source: Overcoming Dyslexia

More information is available in the book by Dr. Sally Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia.