Raising a Reader, Naturally
                     Through Sensitivity, Guidance and Grace
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Chapter Ten
Learning Letter and Word Skills -- Naturally
Little Red-Headed Boy
Late in the school year, I observed a kindergarten class going though their phonics drill -- in chorus. When the lesson concluded, the teacher directed the students to go back to their desks and write their names on their paper. A small red-headed boy started to cry. I went to him and asked why? “I don’t know the letters,” he said.
Despite the phonics instruction he had received many times over, along with the rest of the class, he did not know the letters he needed to write his own name.
Typical? I hope not. However, this incident underscores how difficult it is for children to learn word attack skills (phonics) outside of the reading activity itself. The reason? Letters (lines and squiggles on a page) are nothing more than symbols for something else (words, ideas). In and of themselves, alphabet letters have no meaning. Only when letters are combined to form words/sentences/stories do they take on significance.
It is much easier to learn letters and their respective sounds by beginning with what is already known (words). The question then becomes how and when should a senior partner begin to introduce letter/word skills, or phonics to a little partner?
Early Phonics: Oral Language
Early in this book, I discussed the importance of oral language, because of course, oral language comes first. Here then is the prime reason: In general, and especially when learning to read, we need to hear a word before we can recognize it in print.
While some might disagree with this, think of trying to recognize words printed in another language, a language that you have never heard spoken before. Even using all the phonemic rules in your possession, the outcome is usually rather dismal. And we have all attempted to pronounce unusual (for us) proper names -- where phonics skills can be of little or no help at all.
Listening to others speak, then learning to speak, provides the foundation upon which children can build their own speaking and reading vocabulary. Thus an early listening vocabulary is vital to learning word skills -- identifying letters and their respective sounds, i.e., phonics. Once a word is known (stored in a little partner’s memory) it is much easier to master its components (letters and their respective sounds).
By contrast, trying to learn phonics by barking out sounds of meaningless letters and/or making attempts to sound out unknown or nonsense words amounts to little more than rote memorization -- the lowest form of learning.
Trying to take meaningless sounds and transferring them to symbols on paper is difficult at best. It is better to begin with words that are already in a child’s vocabulary. Thus, with a little prompting or help from a senior partner, and given an already known word it becomes much easier for a little partner to learn and recognize its respective letters and sounds.
It simply makes sense. And we learn best when things make sense.
The Alphabet
A good place to begin learning simple phonics is by learning the alphabet.  While letters have no meaning in and of themselves, when combined they become the building blocks for our written language. By skillfully combining letters to form words and sentences we generate meaning.
The exception, of course, is the A and I. Although these two letters often stand alone, they gain meaning only when used in context.
Too often in kindergarten or first grade each letter of the alphabet is introduced singly as if it is meant to stand on its own. Essentially a letter left on its own is meaningless. What do you do with it --little red-headed boy?
Learning letters in isolation is simply rote learning. Learning letters (and their sounds) within the context of their rightful function, which is to form words/meaning, is much better.
And what about the alphabet song? The alphabet song is often introduced as a learning tool. Without learning the letters in print (this is their rightful job) and knowing that their true function is to form words (meaning), the song then is just a song-- nothing more, just a cute, but snappy song.
A, B, C, D, E, F, G
The alphabet song, however, can come in handy when teaching letters in their traditional sequence. Alphabet letters are generally learned this way. And while the song can happily facilitate this, the important thing is for a little partner to learn to identify each letter.
Reading alphabet books together is a good start. Highlighted letters in alphabet books help little partners become familiar with specific letters, especially beginning letters, along with the corresponding words and memorable illustrations.
Once letters are introduced a senior partner can begin to point out the same letters when they come upon them in new or already familiar words. In this way, little partners can learn about “shared” letters. While there are only 26 letters in the alphabet, it is important to know that each letter  can be used many times over.
Keep in mind, the alphabet doesn’t need to be learned all at once. It is more important to keep these lessons natural while learning word skills in the context of familiar words and stories. Rest assured it won’t be long before your little partner takes pride in building his or her letter knowledge and soon recognizes them all.
A note: While we traditionally learn the alphabet letters in sequence A through Z, I once worked with a young student who knew all the letters, but did not recite or write them in sequence. Other than being amazed, I realized this was true learning -- she knew each letter well enough to include it in the twenty-six.
Learning Phonics Naturally
Learning phonics should begin with easily recognized words, otherwise known as sight words. Sight words are learned when a senior partner identifies an important word in a story, such as the name of a character, or subject, or event (Dumbo, turtle, run) and brings the little partner’s attention to it.
Thereafter each time that word appears (good stories are meant to be read over and over) a senior partner can pause and assist the little “reader” in identifying the word. Once a little partner readily recognizes the word in print it becomes a personal sight word, and the little partner adds another word to his or her reading vocabulary.
Sight words play an important role in learning letters and their sounds -- and all in a natural and meaningful way. Once little partners recognize a word in print it is meaningful to them. Taking this lesson a step further, a senior partner can then bring attention to the sounds of the letters.
Sounding out a few known words throughout the reading session is an excellent way to introduce phonics in a familiar setting. When new words are introduced that have the same letters/sounds as a previously recognized word, don’t hesitate to bring a little partner’s attention to this fact.
Not only does an early reader build a reading vocabulary this way, complete with some knowledge of useable phonics, but throughout the process it all makes sense to them.
The Formula
So here’s the formula: Break a known word (sight word) into its respective letters, attach the appropriate sound to each letter or combination of letters, then finally just say the word, putting it back together again.
This is a natural way to learn the essentials of phonics rather than learning the sounds of letters in isolation and trying somehow to use the sounds to construct words.
Remember the family Bible reading session in the log cabin on the prairie where phonics was approached naturally -- Biblical name by Biblical name; difficult word by difficult word?
A more recent illustration can be found in Dr. Seuss’s book, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.
With a little partner in your lap, read the text, then point to the word ”fish,” as well as the illustration. Then take a chance and spell “fish.” As your little partner recognizes this word along with its meaning, it becomes a sight word. Then what a joy it is when your little partner calls out the word “fish” before you do. This is what learning to read naturally is all about.
As little partners progress they soon begin to pay attention to specific letters and words on their own, especially letters in names. Often the first letters they recognize are the letters in their own name -- even when these letters appear in unfamiliar words. This is a good time to solicit their “help” in creating lists or writing simple notes. Facilitating early writing skills is discussed in Chapter Eleven.
Needless to say, learning letters and their respective sounds requires a higher level of thinking or processing skills. Call it maturation, if you will.
Learning phonics (I should say, applying phonics) is a brain activity. And as with all brain activity, it requires having the right amount of knowledge (the letters, the alphabet) already in place in order to be able to apply the corresponding sounds. Learning how letters and their sounds work together takes time.
Learning phonics, however, can be frustrating when the sounds of the English language prove to be inconsistent. But for now, when questioned, simply reassure your little partner that not all letter or letter combinations remain constant and move on.
Phonics Fun
It is through shared reading that emerging early readers learn the most useful letter sounds and basic words. But word games, rhymes and poetry can also help little partners think and learn about phonics.
For example, children can gain an awareness of how the phonetic process works through playful rhyming schemes such as jump/bump, sea/he, me/bee. Continue to invent your own original rhyme schemes, but keep it light and enjoyable. Drills can be a headache.
In addition, try playing word games using words that begin with the same sounds: kitty/cat, pitty/pat, skitty/scat. These impromptu games can fill what would otherwise be unproductive time, such as driving time, waiting time, etc. A little partner will appreciate the activity -- even at an early age when his or her attention span may be limited.
Continue word games as you drive by street signs and advertising logos. What rhymes with McDonalds, Safeway, Taco Bell? Let your little partner’s imagination help with these. With the proliferation of advertising (children soon learn that print is everywhere) use it to advance your child’s early letter/word skills, forgetting for the moment that the advertiser’s main intent is to sell stuff.
Learning Word Skills, Step by Step.
Wise senior partners help little partners learn about letters, learn how letters form words, and learn how meaning evolves from this whole business (letters, sounds, words) by:
  • In the earliest stages of reading stories aloud, running a finger under the text, thereby bringing attention to the idea that it is the letters and words that make up a story.
  • Sharing letters and their respective sounds as the two of you read alphabet books together.
  • Sharing important words from time to time, like names, including the little partner’s, as well as your own.
  • Asking a little partner’s assistance when writing short lists, such as grocery lists, or lists of birthday party guests. (See the Chapter Eleven for introducing writing).
By using the techniques above a little partner learns how letters and words work together naturally -- that letters and words have meaning only when they are used in context. Trying to teach a child letters and their sounds in isolation (lists, flash cards, drills, etc.) is just too meaningless, and too often, painful.
Talking Toys
Today, there is a proliferation of toys on store shelves that purport to teach children the alphabet and phonics skills. Push a key or button and you get a “talking” letter and its related sound. This can be fun, but basically about all a talking toy accomplishes is reinforcing what a child already knows -- having been raised, of course, by a dedicated senior partner.
So, keep these toys in the play zone and use this activity as a reward, a reinforcement. After all, mechanical toys use detached and mechanical voices and learning to speak and learning to read depend upon meaningful, and loving human voices and human activity.
This is how we learn the most, the best, the fastest.
Phonics: Only One Tool
Knowing the rules and letter sounds can definitely be helpful as readers come across unknown words -- that is once they’ve master the phonics business. The use of phonics, however, still remains just one tool when it comes to conquering new words.
Rather than rely on phonics, most advanced readers tend to rely heavily on sight words -- words recognized by their shape or configuration, how they’re used in context, plus their extensive knowledge gained through many years of reading.
It is also important to note that there are generations of readers who were never formally introduced to phonics, when teaching phonics was not fashionable -- and they’ve done all right.
There is always some danger when a reader thinks that every word/letter needs to be sounded out. These readers are often referred to as "word callers". Word callers are so busy sounding out each phonetic configuration that they miss out on the real point of reading, and sadly for them the meaning, the joy, or even the purpose of reading is lost.
If there is any message here, it is don't get too hung up on phonics. Yes, knowing basic letter sounds (they can get complicated if you let them) is useful, but they are only one tool when it comes to learning how to read. Don't forget that reading is meaning and not a long series of  barking out sounds (letters).
When Guessing is Good
It is always easier to encourage your emerging reader to guess a word (or let a senior partner fill you in) by the way it is used in context, or how it is illustrated, then to painfully bark out each letter and try to make a word out of it.
Once a word is correctly "guessed," or given an assist by a sensitive senior partner, the entire word is then stored in a little partner's memory, where its meaning remains safe and secure. A little repetition from time to time can also be a help here.
Don't underestimate the power and ability of even the littlest partner's brain to process information, to learn new words -- based upon what is meaningful, especially when that meaning is shared between the two of you.