The Road to Literacy

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When my son was three years old I taught him that alphabet song. You know the one: ABCDEFG, HIJK, LMNOP. It is a universal song, one that we all know. Like most parents, I felt that my son, who now knew his ABC's, was just one step away from becoming a bona fide reader. Boy, was I wrong.

In truth, he did have the first important building block -- the awareness that something called the alphabet even existed. But there was so much more for him to learn before he could even begin to decipher the written word.

Language is an auditory skill. Children master the spoken word early on, amassing an astounding vocabulary in the first few years. With exposure to the alphabet, we introduce children to language as a visual medium for the first time -- quite a mental leap for a child to make.

When teaching pre-readers the concepts of print, we must teach them things that we seasoned readers take for granted. Books open in a certain direction. The text (not the illustration) conveys the bulk of the message. Text is read from left to right, top to bottom. Words are separated by spaces. Symbols other than letters (punctuation marks) guide readers like traffic signs, telling them where to pause, stop or change the pitch of their voice. This is quite a lot of information to take in for someone who has previously only experienced language in its spoken form.

The obvious starting point in acquiring literacy is the mastery of the twenty-six symbols that we use to construct words. This mastery is accomplished in stages, the first of which is letter recognition.

A pre-reader must first understand that each of the letters has a name, and he/she must be able to identify them by name. In addition, the learner comes to discover that each letter can be written two ways -- in upper case and lower case. This ups the ante to fifty-two symbols they must recognize. Add to this the skill of reproducing these with pencil and paper, and you begin to realize the enormity of the task. A child who can accomplish the above has truly done some learning!

The next phase of alphabet mastery brings with it a new set of challenges. The child must now learn a multitude of sounds associated with these letters. This requires thinking that is a little more abstract. These symbols actually represent sounds, and some of them represent more than one sound! This is, I believe, the most difficult concept that pre-readers encounter.

Learning letters' sounds can be a confusing thing:

W does not say /d/ as its name implies, nor does Y say /w/.

G makes two distinctly different sounds, as does C.

Q almost never appears without the letter U, and together they make the sound /kw/.

Confusing to say the least, yet this knowledge of letter sounds is central to acquiring literacy. So often do the letters' names seem at odds with the sounds they represent, a pre-reader must work doubly hard not to confuse the two.

The final component of literacy acquisition is the most crucial of all. To become truly literate a child must come to realize that words are composed of sounds strung together in a specific order. True, they are represented by a succession of letters, but it is the sounds of those letters that the reader must identify in order to read the word. These sounds, or phonemes, are the building blocks of words. It is essential that a child understand that the word cat, for example, is not so much composed of the letters c-a-t, but the sounds /c/ /a/ /t/. Only when they begin to view words as chunks of sound in a particular order are emerging readers able to read effectively.

And so, as parents and teachers, we should approach reading instruction in this way. We should reinforce those concepts of print. We should make sure that our emerging readers understand the difference between letter names and letter sounds. And most importantly, we should teach them that words are made up of sounds strung together, not merely letters strung together. If we can instill these concepts firmly in their minds, we will be giving them the necessary tools to become truly literate.


Greg Whitfield

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