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How Reading More Leads to Better Reading

Hello and welcome to the 38th edition of our fortnightly newsletter, Things in Education.

In a previous edition, we wrote about what phonics is and why phonics instruction is one of the foundations of strong reading abilities.

Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham has often emphasised that "the alphabet is a code that puts sounds into visual form." As we read, we turn these random shapes on paper – letters – back into sound!

…What we've done is made the building blocks of these words and sentences into a written code – and the task is to help children connect this written code to the words they already know. The task is to help them decode. Phonics instruction is exactly that.

In learning how to read the squiggly black lines on paper, children must be able to 1) recognise letters of the alphabet 2) sound out and differentiate between sounds (/m/ vs /n/) and 3) map the letters to their sounds. Once they are able to do that, they must then put these sounds together to read words, and then phrases, sentences, paragraphs and stories.

Let’s take an example: zip zap tat too, tim sim la-la-la!

Could you read that easily? Probably yes. That’s because you know the sound that the letter z makes, and you know (intuitively, at this point) that when the vowel i shows up in the middle of a consonant-vowel-consonant word, it makes the short i sound (as in pip) and not the long i sound (as in pipe)! And so on…

Did you understand what it meant, though? Probably not. It isn’t enough to be able to use the rules of phonics to sound words out. We must be able to understand the meanings of words that we sound out for them to make any sense. Here is what the reading process looks like in our mind:

(This flowchart has been adapted from Daniel Willingham’s book The Reading Mind.)

Our mind identifies the letter, or rather a clump of letters, applies translation rules to figure out the sound, and the sound of the word is connected to its meaning in our mind.

Once the sound is activated in our mind, its corresponding meaning is also activated.

(Children and adults learn meanings of words by a combination of different ways – through explicit instruction, by inferring meanings from context, and by using new words in several varied contexts. You can read our newsletter article about vocabulary instruction here.)

So, we’ve seen so far that a child learning to read needs –

  1. many, many oral conversations (see this article)

  2. robust phonics instruction (see this article) and

  3. rich vocabulary instruction (article coming soon).

What else do foundational reading skills include?


Spelling instruction is not the most crucial, pressing need of a child learning to read, but research has shown that it definitely helps. How so?

Let’s look at this flowchart again:

(This flowchart has been adapted from Daniel Willingham’s book The Reading Mind.)

This flowchart shows us that once we are able to sound out a word, we can access the meaning of the word that is stored in our mind.

But if that was the only way to access the meaning, how does our mind deal with meanings of homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings)? Here are some examples:

knight-night, aloud-allowed, be-bee, rose-rows

Homophones sound the same, so if our mind was simply following the route given in the flowchart (letters->translation->sound->meaning), it wouldn’t be able to immediately tell you that a rose is a red, sweet-scented flower, while rows are those nightmarish things in Excel Sheets, or rows refers to the lines we had to stand in at school.

So, clearly, spelling is playing an important role here. The k at the beginning of knight tells us that this is a king’s soldier and not the part of the day when there is no sun in the sky.

Here’s what the updated flowchart then looks like:

(This flowchart has been adapted from Daniel Willingham’s book The Reading Mind.)

This path allows the mind to go directly from letters to spelling and then to meaning.

However, these two paths don’t work separately in our brain. Proficient readers use both paths together.

What does happen, though, is that our brain, in order to save energy and effort, begins to store the visual appearance of letters patterns and common words so that we don’t need to use translation rules to sound them out. Think of common words such as could, have, gone and so on, that we use pretty much every day but that do not follow phonics rules at all! Our brains store the common letter patterns of could, should, would (‘ould’) and the entire spellings of have, gone and other sight words, so we see the letter patterns/words, identify the spelling and immediately know its meaning.

This storing of common words is extremely useful, because we don’t have to spend precious brain resources in translating them (which takes up space in the working memory – see this article for how our brain processes information). Instead, we use our brain resources (or working memory resources) in actually understanding the meanings of words and then comprehending sentences, paragraphs and texts.

As I said above, our brain starts storing common letter patterns and even words. The key word here is common. What common words are for beginning or struggling readers are not the same as what they are for experienced or proficient readers. Our brain is able to store words that it encounters commonly, and such encounters can only happen when we read more.

A simple example: A Grade 1 child comes across the word feast in a new story. In order to read the word aloud, she must break the word down into /f/ /ea/ /st/, recall the sound of the vowel pair /ea/ (when two vowels go a-walking, the first one does the talking!), and also recall the sound of the blend /st/. However, she doesn’t know the meaning. Her teacher or parent explains it to her, and they do a few fun activities, like drawing a feast, role-playing a feast, talking about the different foods we find at a feast, and so on. Good vocabulary instruction!

A few weeks later, she comes across this word again, this time in a school notice about a Diwali feast. She sounds out the word again, and the sound activates her memory of the role-play and of discussing different foods at a feast! Oh, the school’s having a feast! What fun! (In this case, she still had to use more brain resources to translate the word and then connect its sound to the meaning that she recalled from the activities.)

A few more encounters of the written word in other stories, on chart papers, on flash cards, and so on, and she no longer has to sound it out. The visual appearance, or spelling, of the word immediately activates its meaning in her mind!

And so, the more you read (well and correctly), the better you can read. Foundational reading instruction must focus on oral conversations, on phonics, on spelling, and on vocabulary. But in the midst of all this, we mustn’t forget that without kids actually reading lots and lots of stories and poems and rhymes and alliterations and jokes, none of the instruction will actually matter.


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Edition: 2.12

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