One of the biggest problems that children encounter when reading is tackling unfamiliar words. This problem usually comes to light when children are aged about 6 or older. They have progressed to reading books which contain longer and more sentences, increasing the chances of encountering a greater number of unfamiliar words. The children regularly get stuck and constantly seek help, or resort to guessing.
In assessing these children, we discover that the problem lies in their decoding skills. Children taught by the whole-word method lacked a technique to use when encountering unfamiliar words – they either skipped such words or stumbled through them, leading to errors in comprehending what has been read.
Using a systematic approach, at Leaders are Readers, the children on the Reading Programme analyse the 44 sounds which make up all of the words of the English language and discover how these sounds are represented in writing. Surprisingly, there are only around 150 ways that letters are used to represent the sounds of English language. Therefore it is much more efficient to learn these 150 graphemes or combinations of letters than to be made to memorise hundreds of words. Having mastered those graphemes, the child can decode an unlimited number of words, in any combination of the graphemes. A word does not need to be familiar to the child in order for him to remember how to read it.
Guessing at words in a sentence is a common problem. As schools often teach with sight learning, or the whole-word method, it is easy to understand how it happens. Children see and learn the word "heart" and this word gets stored in their memory. The next time they see a word that starts with "h" and has the same number of letters as "heart", they quickly guess the closest word they can find. The actual word may be "heavy" or "heath", but the child automatically guesses it as "heart".
At Leaders are Readers, children are taught to read by first segmenting a word by pulling it apart into the individual graphemes which represent every sound in the word and then blending the sounds together to say (read) the word. This way, instead of looking at a word globally, the children analyse and give attention to every component part of a word. As knowledge of the English written code grows, the process of segmenting and blending becomes faster and fluency flows. Yet accuracy is never compromised for speed because of the children's detailed code knowledge and skill in word analysis developed over the duration of the programme.
Blending is the ability to smoothly and fluently combine individual sounds together into words. Without the ability to blend, after saying all the sounds grouped in a word, a child will not be able to make or hear the word. Smooth blending is highly important to reading development, and it is the teacher's responsibility to help children develop this important skill.
It is obvious that a beginner reader will have trouble blending when the child substitutes letter names for sounds; or says the individual sounds in the word sloppily by inserting another sound not present into his pronunciation. For example, the child may sound out 'jump' as /j/.../u/.../mu/.../pu/.../su/ instead of /j/.../u/.../m/.../p/.../s/ (with the 'm' sounding like 'mmm' and the's' like 'sss'). This results in the child being unable to combine the segmented sounds into a word, or has forgotten the beginning or middle sound by the time he gets to the end of the word. Children who cannot blend sounds together make many errors and struggle with beginning reading. Once a child can blend, the child begins to read.
Many children pick up the skill of blending sounds naturally and do not require any help in this area; others have real difficulties and need a lot more attention. At Leaders are Readers we try to avoid potential difficulty by ensuring that we do not use letter names in our reading lessons. We emphasise and demonstrate to the children how to say individual sounds clearly rather than sloppily. Parents are also supplied with a CD which contains a demonstration of all of the 44 sounds of English. The fun blending games in the beginner classes are enjoyed tremendously by the children.
Children may dislike reading for numerous reasons: they may have had a bad experience when they were reading aloud at school; they may not have come across any books that match their interests; they may find reading difficult due to a lack of knowledge of just how to read the words.
Lack of interest in reading for pleasure begins to become apparent in some children from around Year 3. This is when the child is becoming exposed to chapter books which contain fewer illustrations, smaller print, more sentences per page and unfamiliar words. Parents may also begin to learn from their child's school that just moments after finishing reading a passage or a book, their child is unable to retell the gist of the story or show any understanding of the plot.
From our experience in assessing hundreds of children over the years, we discover that the root cause of a dislike of reading is frequently the lack of word decoding skills. Children who were not taught to read using a rigorous and complete synthetic phonics method lack a full knowledge of the English language written code. Many children are taught by a mix of methods: the whole-word/look-say method, onset-and-rime method, whole book method, or partial phonics and sight words. These children lack a failsafe technique to read unfamiliar words, phonically irregular words or multi-syllable words. They therefore resort to skipping words, guessing or substituting words of similar appearance.
If a child makes reading errors in nearly every paragraph, by the time the child gets to the end of the chapter, even the bottom of a page, he would have lost the plot. If a child does not understand what he has read, he cannot enjoy the author's efforts and the whole experience has been unrewarding. Naturally, the child shies away from repeating such an unrewarding experience. The child becomes a reluctant reader.
The Leaders are Readers programme is thorough and complete. Even the youngest children are given explicit lessons on how to read multi-syllable words. The programme is taught quickly and intensively and so every lesson is jam packed with the learning and reinforcement of new sounds. This is of huge benefit to pupils in Year 3 or above as it enables them to be remediated in just a few months and ready to gain enjoyment from reading books as early as possible.
It is very important to recognise the signs of dyslexia in children. An early diagnosis can prevent years of difficulties and feelings of low self-worth. An expert is required to make a definite diagnosis, but you can look out for certain signs such as the child changing the order of letters in words; showing no interest in words or letters, even though enjoying being read to; difficulty with rhyming words; jumbling phrases on a consistent basis; difficulty remembering things; struggling to sequence things, such as days of the week or picture sequencing. Depending on the age of the child, some or other of the clues may indicate that he or she is struggling with dyslexia.
According to current research, the best technique for helping dyslexics with reading and spelling is to teach them phonics. Leaders are Readers uses this approach when working with learning disabled readers. Using the Leaders are Readers phonics method, children learn the English alphabet code, which consists of 44 different sounds, in a systematic way. The phonics programme is considered by most experts to be the most effective way to teach reading to those with and without disabilities. On the Leaders are Readers Reading Programme, dyslexic children are taught the strategies and techniques for learning and reading as well as their peers.