Learning to read proves frustrating for far too many children. These evidence-based tips will help teachers promote effective reading instruction for all students.

Smiling young female teacher pointing at a flip chart with a magic marker

After reading a recent article in Intervention in School and Clinic (2017) by Gentry Earle and Kristin Sayeski about reading instruction, I thought it timely to remind us of what effective reading instruction entails. It is that time of year when many children, once so eager to go to school, will come face-to-face with challenges and feelings of defeat when written text is put before them. Some estimates put the figure of children who struggle with reading as high as 1 in 5—far too many. Earle and Sayeski dispel myths and offer evidenced-based tips to help teachers promote students’ literacy learning.

As early-elementary teachers know, children must learn letter-sound relationships to “break the code,” in other words to learn to read. Knowing that there is a relationship between the sounds in spoken words and letters (and letter combinations) that form written words is termed the alphabetic principle. This knowledge is essential for learning to read and spell.

First, explicit instruction in letter-sound knowledge is imperative and sets the foundation for reading and spelling. Approaches that teach one letter per week or follow alphabetic order are not ideal. Some letters require more focused study (e.g., i, c, w, y) and others allow for more immediate use when reading (e.g., decoding phonograms such as -at, -an, -am and words “mat, tan, man”). Teachers need to decide which letters to teach when, determine student mastery, and ensure the letter-sound instruction transfers to decoding.

Earle and Sayeski recommend that teachers understand how consonants and vowels are produced. The understanding of how the small changes we make to produce various phonemes (i.e., sounds) can aid teachers in knowing how to help students when they struggle to identify the sounds in words. For example, there is very little difference in the production of short ‘i’ and short ‘e.’ Teachers can help students to perceive that difference using minimal pair words (e.g., win/when, sit/set, big/beg) by noting placement of the structures of one’s mouth and how that changes as each vowel is produced. Vowels are particularly tricky. Louisa Moats’ book Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers (2000) is a very helpful text on this subject. Teachers should also reach out to their schools’ speech-language pathologist (SLP) for information about sound production.

Knowledge of how sounds are produced can help teachers model correct production for students to aid blending. For example, it can be difficult to correctly produce consonants. Many times, students will add the schwa vowel sound (i.e., “uh” as in “agree” or “facilitate”) when saying the letter names (e.g., “duh”), which can cause confusion when decoding words (e.g., the word d-o-g might be blended incorrectly as “dug”). Teachers need to pay particular attention to the “stop” consonants (e.g., b, d, g, k, p, t). Teaching students to “clip” these sounds for a true production will aid blending these sounds into words when reading. This can also be a very tricky skill to teach, but one that will have great reward for students’ decoding abilities.

Relative to the scope and sequence for teaching letter-sound knowledge, it is recommended that students master a small set first so that they can practice blending and segmenting V-C and C-V-C words before new sounds are introduced. The most common sounds and more frequently used letters should be taught first and teachers should refrain from teaching letters that look similar at the same time (e.g., b, d, p, g, q). It is very important that children quickly begin applying newly taught skills to real world reading. When students become facile with sounding out an initial set of letters in words, teachers can move on to the next set.

After they introduce new letters and sounds, teachers can then incorporate previously taught letters into the decoding of new words. In my field of speech-language pathology, distributed practice has been a core tenet of intervention. In distributed practice, previously learned concepts and skills are revisited over and over again to ensure learning. Repetition is key to solidifying skills. This cycle is ongoing.

Another challenge for students, and thus teachers, is conquering those irregular words—those pesky “rule breakers” that just don’t follow the pattern (e.g., does, was, to). It is recommended that these words be taught after students gain some skills in early letter-sound decoding. According to Earle and Sayeski, “teaching irregular words prior to decoding instruction can lead to the misconception that reading involves only automatic, whole-word recognition” (p. 265). Exceptions to the rule(s) can then be introduced (e.g., after teaching ‘silent e’ decoding, introduce students to have, love, give stating that English structure does not end with words with v, so e always follows). An excellent resource for irregular words (and a wealth of other information) is The Reading Teacher’s Book of Lists (Fry & Kress, 2006).

Finally, as is good practice, Earle and Sayeski recommend that teachers utilize periodic assessment to gauge student learning to inform the pace of instruction. A skill or concept may need to be revisited at a later date if students are having difficulty mastering it at that specific time. The authors note the feasibility of curriculum-based assessments to aid teachers in planning and instruction.

The challenge for today’s teachers is that, for many, the curriculum is prescribed. It behooves teachers to share their knowledge about best practices in reading instruction with administrators and school board members and to obtain a seat at the table where decisions about curriculum are made. The research is clear about what works when teaching dyslexic students to read—direct, explicit, systematic instruction about letter-sound relationships that then cycles back around to allow for decoding practice incorporating previously taught concepts. Instruction that teaches students to use letter-sound knowledge to decode and not just guess at the whole word will ensure that all children gain the necessary skills to read and spell.

As always, I thank my colleague at 3LI, Dr. Lauren Katz, for her thoughtful review of these pieces.