Reading and phonics

Phonological awareness, that is the ability to match letters and sounds, is something that my son has failed to grasp in his three years of schooling. He excels in other areas of literacy: he has no problem with comprehension and when he has spelling words from school, he mentally “takes a picture” and reads it back in his minds eye to spell it.

My husband is exactly the same. When he comes across a word he doesn’t know he works it out by either shape or context. It has never held him back academically: he graduated with a Physics bachelor degree with honours. This knowledge led me to ask, is there another way to teach my son to read?

My teacher at university, who has extensive experience in special education, told us that some children never learn to break words down into their sounds, that they just memorise them. This was echoed almost word for word by my son’s psychologist.

So should I be teaching him sight words? I figure that school will be teaching the phonics side of things, so it would do no harm to complement this by giving him an arsenal of sight words, right?

Mem Fox, in her book ‘Reading Magic‘ doesn’t think so. She says “It’s more difficult for anyone – especially confused children who are learning to read – to read lists of random words than to read those same words in normal sentences. It’s misguided to ask children to identify lists of random unconnected words.”

So what can we do? A psychology student once told me about a technique called “Paired Reading” (this is also known as “Shared Reading” and is similar to “Whisper Reading“). The main aim of this technique is to read along out loud with the child, and if a child struggles with a word for more than four seconds, you pronounce that word loudly and clearly. There are also comprehension building strategies involved in this technique. This document describes the technique in depth:

Mem Fox seems to be in agreement. She says “astonishing and ‘soft’ as this may seem, we should tell children many of the words that they can’t read… We need to hurry them along so that their memory isn’t overloaded, so that they can use all the information they’ve picked up so far in the story, as well as using their understanding of print, language and the world to get accurate meaning as they read along. Anything that slows them down is a bad thing.” She also goes on to say, “we need to help beginning readers make rapid progress through a story so that they are able to remember what they’re reading. They’ll then relax, make more sense of the print and eventually, begin to enjoy the story. They will rely less on the single avenue of painfully sounding out words and will make informed guesses more quickly. Finally, they’ll be reading. Eureka! And perhaps for the first time in their lives they will realise that reading has fabulous, real rewards.”

This technique also has the added benefit of bonding time with your child, something that Mem Fox extols fervently.

In Grade 1 my son didn’t even want to touch a book. This technique is reigniting the love of books he had as a toddler and young child, when we used to read together every night. It has increased his self-esteem and confidence, and now he is wanting to attempt more difficult books on his own such as Captain Underpants.

For more information on Paired Reading see


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