There are Two Approaches to Teaching Reading to Your Child, Here is How to Stay Balanced

Yes, there has been a 100-year war on the approaches to teaching reading to our children in school. As a parent, there is no need to worry about which approach you should use to help teach your child to read at home! However, it may be beneficial to you to understand what type of reading education your child receives at school so you can determine how best to support them at home.

In this post, you will learn more about the approaches educators use to teach children how to read in the classroom and why it’s important to know how your child is learning how to read in school. Using this information, you will be able to make informed decisions on how best to further guide and nurture your child’s reading development.

Check out the [FREE READING TIPS] download at the bottom of this post!

The Two Approaches Used to Teach Your Child to Read

As stated above, there are two approaches, or schools of thought, on teaching reading in the classroom.

The Whole-Language Approach to Teaching Reading

  • Takes on a top-down approach starting with whole word exposure.
  • Focus is on using “look and say” to memorize whole words.
  • Children learn words by ‘guessing’ words using context clues and pictures.
  • It is believe that reading comes naturally to children like walking and talking.

The Phonics Approach to Teaching Reading

  • Takes on a bottom-up approach starting with letter sounds.
  • Focus is on building decoding skills to allow children to break apart unfamiliar words.
  • Children learn words by sounding out, blending and segmenting phonemes (letter sounds).
  • It is believe that reading should be taught sequentially and systematically.

Over time, educators and school board administers have recognized the benefits of both approaches to reading and seek to find curriculum that embraces both approaches. This has transformed into the term “balanced literacy”. Thank you ongoing reading research!

Reading Development Always Begins with Phonics

More likely than not, you have began teaching your child to learn reading using phonics. There is a wealth of evidence showing the most effective approaches to teach your child to read always, always, always begins with learning letter sounds! Educators build children’s phonemic and phonological awareness skills through activities like rhyming, working with word families, identifying beginning, middle, and ending letter sounds and changing letter sounds to develop new words. These type of activities fall under phonemic awareness and phonological awareness.

This component of reading is fundamental to learning how to read because it allows children to begin decoding unfamiliar words on their own. Furthermore, children will begin to see the relationship of speech sounds to words and sentences on a page.

Words consist of sounds called phonemes. There are 44 phonemes that make up the English language. When it comes to early literacy, your child most often begins mastering all of the consonant sounds and short vowel sounds. Check out TBL’s post about phonemic awareness here!

Phonemic Awareness: First Steps to Learning How to Read. Features a mother and her baby sitting on a couch reading a book.

A Linguistical Side Note about the English Language and Learning to Read

The English language is always evolving! The English spelling system a.k.a. orthography rarely evolves with it. This means that English is not a phonetic language. There is not a direct sound to letter correspondence. We see that letters constitute multiple speech sounds depending on where they are in the word and what letters they are next to. There are times we see the letters sound disappear or cluster up to create a whole new sound.

For example:
/sh/ is initially taught as the digraph ‘sh’ like in ‘fish‘ or ‘sunshine’. What about these words?

Seems complicated but don’t worry. Your child will begin seeing patterns and connections as they progress through their reading development.

The whole-language approach, in my humble opinion, unintentionally dismisses these important orthography rules by stating, “that’s just the way it is” or “your child just needs to memorize the words that don’t make sense“. Reading does not develop by merely memorizing words and their orthography by sight. You don’t learn reading naturally either. There are some good things about whole-language, however. It shows early readers how to embrace and engage in the text they are reading. It attempts to instill the love of reading by ensuring the child is enjoying the process of learning how to read as opposed to the more systematic approach to teaching phonics. To me, that is incredibly important.

The English Language is Complex but Not Complicated!

Getting the Balance Right at Home: A Combined Approach to Teaching Reading

There should be a balance between both of these approaches to teaching reading. I’m a huge advocate for instilling the love of reading through exposure to rich story-telling and adult-modeled reading. I’m also a huge advocate for phonics and use this approach with 100% of my students.

Where I believe the real problem lies is in the lack of a deep understanding of reading acquisition and development. This leads educators to begin relying more on their intuition when it comes to literacy instruction. Educators often opt for a more ‘fun’ or child-led approach to reading ultimately falling under more of the whole-language approach.

Unfortunately, this approach disregards all of the research and evidence found on how children learn to read. Over time we’ve seen an intolerance for a systematic approach to reading and a polarizing shift away from ‘teaching the basics’ to the more whole-language approach to reading.  

Because learning to read is so complex, the most accomplished teachers have a deep knowledge of the science of reading and the skills to foster a love for reading. It’s important to implement a balance of systematic reading components such as phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension with rich story-telling and curiosity-inducing, entertaining material for children.

Why is it Important for you to Know These Approaches to Teaching Reading

Each student enters the classroom at different stages of reading development. They bring with them their home language, experiences, and varying levels of vocabulary and literacy skills already learned at home. Some children receive a ton of reading exposure prior to entering primary school and others simply do not.

That’s ok!

It is essential that educators understand each stage of reading development and how to adapt their instruction to meet the needs of each student. Frankly, this is not an easy task for educators to accomplish when dealing with varying levels of reading skills. Therefore, it’s important for you, as a parent or tutor, to recognize where your child is in their reading development and to engage in activities to foster growth where they may need additional support.

Ways to Ensure Your Child is Getting the Most Out of Their Reading Education

Here are a handful of helpful tips to balance your child’s literacy skills at home.

NOTE: Parent involvement is absolutely key to your child’s literacy development. It is never too early to begin doing these things with your child. Be sure to check out this blog post for more information about how your involvement is crucial.

How Parental Engagement Impacts Your Child's Language Development a father sits with his two sons reading a book together

Teaching Reading Begins with Phonemic Awareness

Exposing your child to the alphabet at an early age is absolutely beneficial to their reading development. Phonemic awareness is simply understanding that spoken words consist of individual sounds. The individual sounds in words are called phonemes!

The word cat consists of 3 phonemes: /c/ /a/ /t/

You can introduce phonemes to your child very early on! What’s more, is that you have the potential to work on phonemic awareness anywhere! Begin by asking your child to produce beginning sounds of words emphasized in conversation or pictures found in storybooks. Naturally, introducing sounds along with printed letters is a bonus! Bring attention to letters and their sounds where ever you are with your child.

Other activities can include producing rhyming words together, discussing alliterate phrases like “Sally sells seashells…”, and listening to nursery rhymes.

Build Phonological Awareness Skills

Once your child understands letter sounds, start working on phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is the most important skill emergent readers must have in order to become successful readers. These skills include successfully identifying phonemes in different positions of a word (beginning, middle, or end to start), segmenting phonemes in words, manipulating or changing phonemes in words to create new words, and blending phonemes together to produce words.

For at-home practice, begin with identifying letter-sounds (phonemes) in different positions of a word. Play word games that feature word creation with letters that you can exchange with other letters to produce new words. Remember: phonemic and phonological awareness is all sound-based. However, it is important to begin teaching letter-sound correspondence, correspondingly. 😊

Teach Phonics

Phonics is not to be confused with phonological and phonemic awareness. It is the bridge that connects a child’s sound knowledge to letters as it relates to reading and spelling. We start to see children use their phonological awareness skills to decode unfamiliar words, build sight word knowledge, and to spell.

There are SO many activities that parents and caregivers can do with their child to teach phonics at home. . In the future, I will provide you with printable activities and game ideas to build your child’s phonics skills. Be sure to sign up for the Think Beyond Literacy Newsletter to stay connected.

Phonics must be taught systematically and with full fidelity. Working on these skills at home may help close any gaps your child may experience when learning in group environments.

Click to download reading tips and common reading terms every parent should know

Read to Your Child (a lot) and Have Fun with it! 

One of the first things children learn about reading is that print carries meaning. Books are like mini-portals into other realms in space and time! Fun! They set you up to teach morals and values, introduce different cultures and viewpoints, and build your child’s vocabulary. Most importantly, books allow you to bond with your child! Not to mention the endless opportunities to build phonemic awareness, phonics skills, and model your awesome verbal (reading fluency and vocabulary) and physical (left-to-right reading, how to hold a book) literacy skills. 

Samantha signature with magic wand

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you have any questions, please leave a comment below. Be sure to sign up for notifications to receive more information on how to teach your child to read and enter into the magical world of literacy.