RRF Conference 2011 - preventing reading problems

RRF Conference 2011
causes of reading problems
preventing reading problems
Teachers of young children know very well that in each class there is a
group of children who learn to read easily, whatever method of teaching is
used, and that there is also a group of children who struggle and often fail.
So why does this happen, when the teaching is the same for all of the
children? I have asked this question frequently when I have given synthetic
phonics training sessions.
Reasons given for reading
children are not mature enough
come from a poor environment
have not had stories read to them
are not interested in reading
are poor at speaking and listening
are limited in their vocabulary
have parents who are not willing or able to
help them
have parents who are too pushy
The responses tend to be that the struggling group of children:
- are not mature enough
- come from a poor environment
- have not had stories read to them
- are not interested in reading
- are poor at speaking and listening
- are limited in their vocabulary
- have parents who are not willing or able to help them
- have parents who are too pushy
The list goes on and on. All these explanations have some validity but, to my
mind, they are not the main causes of the children’s difficulties.
Attributes needed for decoding
1.Good visual memory :- to support the
learning of the letter sounds and tricky words
1. Good ear for hearing the words after the
sounds have been spoken
With all learning there are certain attributes that are needed for each task,
whether we are learning to drive, play football, do mathematical calculations
or learning to read. Human beings cannot be good at everything. We all
have our strengths and weaknesses for these different tasks. Unfortunately,
for the children who struggle to read, they have weaknesses in the two
essential attributes that are needed for reading*.
*By reading I mean being able to get the words off the page – word
recognition. Comprehension is a different issue. Children will understand
what they read if it is in their spoken understanding. Spoken comprehension
develops through speaking, listening and being read interesting and
stimulation stories.
The first attribute for learning to read is a good visual memory. No matter
what method of teaching is used, the children with a good memory are able
to remember things easily, whether it is whole words, letter sounds,
numerals, poems etc. These children only need telling once or twice and it
has been learnt.
The second attribute is the natural auditory skill of hearing the word when
the sounds have been spoken, as well as being able to hear and identify the
sounds in words.
Cracking the alphabetic code
If the children with good visual memories also have the natural awareness of
the sounds in words, they are often able to crack the alphabetic code by
For example, the children might have memorised the word mum and then
noticed that the letters ‘m’ have a /m/ sound. Then they see other words like
man and make that similarly have a /m/ sound. Following that the /d/ sounds
in dad, dog, did etc. become associated with the letter ‘d’. Gradually the
connection between all the single alphabet letters and their associated
sounds is made and they confidently work out simple words, such as pot,
slip, comic etc for themselves.
Later this extends to noticing that a word like church has a /ch/ sound at
each end and that the two letters ‘c’ and ‘h’ are used for that sound. Seeing
words like chips and rich confirms their understanding that sometimes two
letters are needed to represent a single sound (phoneme). Bit by bit, using
memory and code cracking skills, these children are able to teach
themselves to read. They are the children who do well even with a whole
word method of teaching. They do even better and go faster with synthetic
phonics because they are not taking the time that would be needed to
deduce the code for themselves.
Learn by sight
At the other end of the spectrum there are children who have a poor visual
memory. For them it is terribly difficult to memorise words. Even with
synthetic phonics teaching these children struggle to remember the letter
sounds, which is a much easier task that learning whole words. Literate
adults rarely understand how hard this task of memorising words is until the
script is changed.
Try learning these words for yourself. Memorising squiggles is not easy,
especially if you have a poor visual memory. Our alphabet letters are just
squiggles to children, particularly for the children who come from homes
where the parents have not drawn their attention to the shape of letters: for
instance, by using plastic letters on the fridge or going through an alphabet
book. Yet when the sounds linked to the squiggles are known, then it is
relatively easy to work out words in any languages that are based on a code
linked to the sounds of the language, such as the Korean used in this
Very often the children with a poor visual memory are also the same children
who have a poor natural awareness of the sounds in words. They are
therefore unable to crack the code for themselves. Even with strong
synthetic phonics teaching these children initially find it difficult to learn the
letter sounds and to work out the words by blending the sounds. Blending is
particularly difficult for them. These children are the ones who are at the
greatest risk of failure, and many of them are highly intelligent.
A further problem with memorising words, and not decoding them, is that it is
Memory versus decoding
Bruce McCandliss
Professor at the Stackler
Institute in New York
invented artificial alphabet
one memorising group and one
decoding group
In the book, ‘Reading in the Brain’ by Stanislas Dehaene, there was an
interesting research experiment carried out by Bruce McCandliss, who
developed an artificial alphabet for his experiment.
Artificial alphabet
Two groups of adult students were given 30 words to learn each day. On
the screen you can see a sample of the words.
One group, unknown to the other group, was told that there was a code to it.
At the end of the first day the students were tested to see how many words
had been learnt. The group of students who actually memorised the words
were the most successful on the first day. The other group spent their first
day mastering the code. After that the decoding group became far more
Interestingly the group that memorised the words found that as they learnt
more new words they started to forget the words they had previously learnt.
This is typical of learning to read by memorising whole words. Teachers
using the whole word method or mixed methods have often remarked that
the children knew the words last week!
Reading –
using the alphabetic code
So let us remind ourselves how literate people do read unfamiliar words.
Look at the words on the screen. These words have never been seen
before, so they cannot have been memorised, but literate people are able to
read them. As you attempt to read them think of the processes you are going
The chances are that you will have started at the left of each word,
converted the letters into sounds, blended them, and arrived at a
pronunciation of the word. This is known as blending. It is a sophisticated
skill that literate adults have acquired during their early formative years.
Gradually blending is only needed for words that have never been read
before, such as the words on the screen.
Literate people always try and work new words out by blending the sounds
from left to right. They rarely ask others or guess at words, but poor readers
English alphabetic code
it is a complex code
many ways to represent the same sound
it needs teaching systematically from the simple
to the complex
care is needed to provide words that only use the
letter sounds that have been taught
tricky words should be introduced gradually
decodable readers used initially
The English alphabetic code is a complex code. Although it can be irregular,
it does work for the vast majority of words when enough letter-sound
correspondences have been learnt. That is why it is important, in the
beginning, to use regular words that the children can successfully decode
and gradually progress from the simple to the more complex code. The more
awkward words, sometimes known as tricky words, can be introduced
It is essential that books for the children to read themselves should contain
words that can be worked out with the phonic knowledge the children have
been given and the few tricky words that they have been taught. These are
known as decodable readers.
Decodable reading books are necessary for each child until there is
confidence in the reading and fluency with the decoding of unknown words.
Some children develop these skills very quickly and will then be able to enjoy
reading any books that are suitable for their age and intelligence. The other
children will take longer to reach the same stage.
Identifying the children who
need support
poor at learning the letter sounds
weak at blending and segmenting
After the first two weeks of teaching letter sounds it is easy to identify the
problem group of children in each class. They are the ones who do not learn
the letter sounds easily (poor visual memory).
If they are also poor at blending and segmenting (identifying the sounds in
words) then they are in need of early support and intervention teaching.
This group of children take longer to master these basic skills. Frequently
teachers think that the children are not ready and delay their teaching, in the
hope that this will make it easier for them. This is a mistake. These children
need at least twice as much teaching as the other children. They do not
need alternative strategies or a mixing of methods: just more of the same
mainstream synthetic phonics.
The cause of reading problems is nearly always insufficient blending
practice. Although that bottom group are far more difficult to teach than the
top group, they are still able to do well. They just need much more blending
practice than the other children, as well as decodable readers that progress
slowly and have plenty of repetition.
Tips for successful teaching
avoid whole word memorising
provide words for blending practice every day *
quickly identify the children with memory or
auditory problems
provide extra teaching for these children
use decodable readers for all children until there is
automatic fluency in the blending of unknown words
and confidence with the reading
The secret for success is to:
- avoid whole word memorising
- provide words for blending practice every day (use Word Bank)
- quickly identify the children with memory or auditory problems and provide
extra teaching and support for these children
- use decodable readers until there is an automatic fluency in the blending of
unknown words and confidence with the reading.