Beginning Reading – Teaching Sounds and Symbols


As everyone knows, the first major task in teaching someone of any age to read is to teach them how to match the sounds to the symbols used to depict words in any particular written language.

Humor me – Please say the sounds for each of the following symbols. Make sure that you say the sound not the name of the symbol.

So how did you do?

  • Is your Greek not up to scratch? Gadzooks – How did this happen?
  • Can’t read Arabic? – OMG, what do we ever do now?
  • No fluency with Mandarin? – Tell me it isn’t so!!!
  • Oh, so you got that English one – Nice.

So why did you not get all four of the sounds correctly? The answer is easy- you were never taught them.

That’s What it Feels Like to be Illiterate

And now you know how it feels to be illiterate in many languages and dialects because you cannot attach the correct sound to the symbol that represents that sound and therefore cannot break the code to read the words.

That’s exactly how 35% of entering second grade students feel right now, today, when asked to read. The saddest news is that 85% of these students will remain illiterate throughout their school careers because we failed to teach them the first, most fundamental step in learning how to read. That’s why 25% of North Americans are illiterate.

Option #1: Teaching the Alphabet in Order

Symbols can be confusing. Some sounds are difficult to tell apart. You have to be very careful about how you arrange the symbols and their sounds when you teach them.

Here’s one commonly used method: Teaching the sounds of the alphabet in order

Here’s the Problem:

  1. a” looks a lot like “d” – the only difference is the slight difference in height of the stick.
  2. b” is the mirror image of “d” and sounds a lot like “d”.
  3. a” and “e” as vowel sounds are hard to tell apart. They sound very much alike.
  4. c” looks like “e” except for that bar across its middle.

This group of sounds, a b, c, d, & e share a lot of common visual and auditory attributes that you might never consider when teaching a naive student to learn phonics.

Option #2: Use Direct Instruction

Instead of teaching sounds in alphabetic order, let’s try teaching “a” “m” &“t” as the first sounds that a student learns.

Here are the benefits of teaching “a” “m” and “t”

  • They do not look alike
  • They do not sound alike.
  • They are much less likely to become confused by the student.

This is a small part of a Direct Instruction analysis for teaching sounds so as to minimize the chances of students becoming confused. The differences in how quickly and well students learn using this carefully designed system rather than other approaches is staggering.

Better analysis leads to better programs which create better learning, especially for kids who are already confused. Try it, you’ll like it.

If you want to know if your child has been taught well, try our free reading test. Hopefully you will not get a nasty surprise. If you do get a nasty surprise, contact us for assistance.


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