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Cracking the Reading Code

Congratulations! Whether you have chosen to send you child to a public school or you are home schooling, your child has started school. But do you ever wonder what’s going on there? All this pressure about reading readiness, all those hours reading bedtime stories when you’re bone tired, and the kids aren’t even looking at a book? Well, they may not be reading Dick and Jane or Mr. Fig yet, but they’re learning in a systematic way that will give them solid reading skills as they move up through the grades.

The Code Breakers

The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) is about to release a DVD set called “Children of the Code.” This series looks at the “unnatural processing challenge” children’s brains face in learning to interpret the code we call words and sentences. We don’t think about it because books have been around for millennia, but writing is an invention. It’s a way of putting something natural, speech, into code for transmission. When teachers go over things that seem basic, it’s because they understand how kids learn the code . . . and the importance of learning it right the first time. Failure triggers “cognitive shock”; the child’s brain, flooded with thoughts of being in trouble, is no longer focused on reading. This negative spiral can impact other school subjects as kids struggle to keep up.

Phonemes and Phonics and Decoding, Oh My!

How does all this work? Let’s start at the beginning. Your child knows how to talk. (Maybe too well!) The teacher’s first task is to help kids make a connection between speech and writing. To begin with, children learn to focus on individual sounds in spoken words. This is called phonemic awareness—not to be confused with phonics (a later skill).

Horton Hears a Phoneme

So what the heck is a phoneme? It’s a unit of sound even smaller than a syllable, like “mmm” in “Mom.” It sometimes goes with one letter, but sometimes it doesn’t. (Ever notice this annoying fact about spelling?) But letters aren’t in the picture yet. Kids are learning things like making the first, last, or middle sound of a word they hear, saying which sound is the same in two words, and finally taking separate sounds they hear and blending them into a word, like “mmm . . . ahhh . . . mmm” – “Mom!”

Print! What a Concept

Now, finally, we get some letters going. Learning to recognize different letters is one reason everyone is quizzing preschool kids on shapes. Kids have to make that visual discrimination and then learn how letters relate to the phonemes they’ve been practicing. Matching letters and sounds that go together is called letter-sound correspondence. Combined with phonemic awareness, it moves your child into the world of phonics and decoding, a.k.a. reading! In fact, grounding in those two earliest skills is the best predictor of reading success.

Cracking the Code

Phonics helps kids learn that there is a relationship between words they hear and written words on a page, and that it’s not random. You’ve seen your child mimic writing and when they show you, you have to ask what it says. Kids get that print says something, but they need to be taught that there’s a specific way it’s done. Phonics starts with one-syllable words made of easy letters kids know, like m, n, r, and s. (You don’t want to start with q!) Stories written with these words are called decodable text.

And Voila! They’re Reading!

So to recap . . . kids know the sounds for letters, and they know how to blend sounds together to make a word. You’ll often hear early readers doing this out loud as they track the print with their finger. It doesn’t look or sound impressive, but this is the accumulation of tons of code knowledge! By the time kids are finished with phonics, they can decode words with letters that may stand for different sounds (like c and g) as well as letter combinations that stand for a single sound (like th). Now all they have to do is get fast enough (fluency) to follow the thought (comprehension) without thinking so much about each word.

True Confessions – Do You Type with One Finger?

It’s like typing. You don’t have to think about the keys. It’s habitual, so you are just thinking about the words you want to input. Compare using a QWERTY keyboard to using another keyboard (like maybe your GPS) that has the letters in alphabetical order. Whichever system you use, you do automatically, and the other way is hunt and peck! It’s hard to think about what you’re doing because you’re hung up on the key entry. So kids need fluency to get past the code to the meaning. And while they’re working on it, they need easy text. Shouldn’t they be reading at grade level? Don’t sweat it! In the classroom, they are. This “instructional” level is used to move kids along. For fluency building, your child should read independent-level stories, or text that is easy to read aloud without practice.

Beyond Green Eggs and Ham

Another piece of the puzzle is learning new words (vocabulary). Those lists of words and definitions are not just concocted to torment your child (or you!). Knowing a word they’re reading helps kids confirm their decoding. Once they’ve graduated from decodable text, their books have all kinds of words. If they don’t know one, they have to run through the different sounds each letter might stand for. Is the vowel long or short? Is that g like in gift or like in giraffe? They might even get the word right but not realize it! So both fluency and vocabulary help kids reach the ultimate goal of comprehension.

This all seems very cumbersome, but research shows that it works better than the way many of us learned. Each basic, repetitive part is a huge step for your child. And moving through the steps gives a kid the best confidence-booster in the world—cracking the reading code.

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