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What’s the Best Way to Teach Kids to Read?

Why phonics trumps the popular “balanced literacy” approach.

Caroline Miller

Reading is the most important skill children need to gain in the first few years of school. But how it’s taught can have a big impact on how well they succeed.

Some kids will learn to read easily no matter what the curriculum is. But many others — including those with dyslexia — need a specific kind of instruction to learn to read effectively. And many schools aren’t using that kind of instruction— or aren’t using enough.

The best way to teach reading is called systematic phonics-based instruction. It’s based on decades of brain science. Unlike speaking, reading is not a skill that kids’ brains are hard-wired to develop. Learning to read requires several different parts of the brain all working together.

When kids are learning to read, they are learning to recognize printed letters and match them to specific sounds. This process is called “phonics.”

Learning to do this quickly takes lots of practice, and it works best if kids master simple letter-sound combinations before they learn more complicated ones. For example, kids might learn that “ai” makes an “A” sound. Then they would practice recognizing that pattern in different words.

This gradual, structured approach is what systematic phonics-based instruction means. They learn phonics in small steps, with lots of practice, building from simple sounds to more complex ones. And they practice reading using books that contain mostly the letter-sound patterns they already know.

What approaches are NOT phonics-based?

Reading approaches called “whole language” or “balanced literacy” are ineffective for many children, including those with dyslexia, explains Laura Phillips, PsyD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute.

“Whole language” approaches are based on the idea that kids can best learn to read “naturally” by exposure to written language that is relevant and motivating to them. When trying to read new words, they are taught to look for clues to their meaning in pictures or in the context of the story rather than sounding them out. But this draws their attention away from what they should be focusing on, says Dr. Phillips, which is the letters and the sounds.

“Balanced literacy” is a curriculum that combines different components of reading instruction — including, phonics, vocabulary and comprehension. But Dr. Phillips argues that there is not enough phonics instruction in balanced literacy for many kids to learn to read proficiently, especially kids with dyslexia. 

What to look for in a reading program

How can parents tell if the reading program in their child’s classroom is phonics-based? Here are tips from our experts:

  • Look at the words that the child is being asked to learn. If they all are in the same word family or they all sound the same — like cat, sat, bat, mat — it’s phonics-based. If they are just groupings of high-frequency words like of, the, have, that, it’s not a phonics-based program.
  • If there’s a classroom “word wall,” words in a phonics-based program are grouped by sound and letter patterns, rather than listed alphabetically. It may also be called a “sound wall.”
  • Is the child being told to guess? Phonics programs don’t encourage guessing based on the picture or the context. Phonics programs encourage your child to look at the letters and produce their corresponding sounds.
  • In a good phonics program kids are instructed and directed. They’re not expected to learn to read just because they’re exposed to a lot of books. It takes direct, systematic instruction and intentional practice.
  • How much are they practicing? With phonics, there has to be lots of repetition. This might include a child learning to decode the word, write the word, and then use the word in a sentence. It’s repetitive but they’re being asked to do the repetition in multiple ways, which reinforces learning.
  • Effective reading approaches are also often described as “multisensory.” Multisensory phonics-based approaches are designed to reinforce learning by hearing words, seeing them, saying them, writing them in a sentence, even incorporating gestures and movements.
  • To help kids absorb and be able to apply what they’ve learned, they should be given reading material that contains the phonics patterns they’ve mastered.  Reading materials that are matched to specific phonic lessons are called “decodable” texts. Decodable books are books in which at least 98% of the words contain the phonics patterns that kids have been taught so far.

A website called What Works Clearinghouse can help you find out more about whatever reading program your child’s school uses.