Learning Letters and Letter Sounds
Early Exposure to Books in Years 3-5
Generally by age 3 a child has well developed language skills and is adding new vocabulary at an astonishing pace. During the age period from 3-5 children from economically advantaged backgrounds are exposed to written language in books for children. Parents and other care-givers read to their children and they often provide explicit instruction in letter names and letter sounds by working with alphabet books. This stage of development provides two critical skills that are important in learning to read.
Learning the Alphabetic Principle
The first skill is that a child must learn to visually differentiate one letter from another and to attach a sound (or sounds) to that letter. The child not only has to learn to do this without error, but in order for skilled reading to develop, he or she must learn to do it without thinking about it. Doing something without thinking about it is called automatic performance (automaticity) and automaticity will turn out to be a key concept in skilled reading development. After having acquired the ability to identify written letters the child must acquire a skill known as the alphabetic principle. The alphabetic principle, is the realization by the child that there is a relationship between the sounds that make up spoken words, and the sounds that letters make. This leads to the realization that written words can be used to represent spoken speech. This is not a trivial discovery on the part of the child. Many children with reading problems treat written language as a kind of code that some people have access to, but they don’t. For them, there is a mysterious and magical aspect to reading written text. But early recognition that letters code sounds that can be used to form words takes much of the magic out of the process.
The second critical skill that develops between ages 3-5 is called phonological awareness and it involves the development of the ability to decompose spoken words into constituent sounds and to then manipulate those sounds. A phonologically aware child, for example, can tell you if two words end with the same sound (they rhyme) or tell you what the word “boat” would sound like if you left off the b. Phonological awareness provides the foundation for our ability to use sounding out strategies to identify words we don’t know, and it provides an important first step in being able to spell.
Early Reading Skills and Social and Economic Status
Many children from economically advantaged backgrounds arrive in kindergarten and first grade with well developed letter recognition skills and intact alphabetic principle and phonological awareness skills. However, children from disadvantaged backgrounds often do not have these skills when they begin school and this places them behind their more advantaged peers in terms of acquisition of reading skill. Approximately 20% of children in U.S. schools enter school at-risk for the development of reading problems. Many of those children are at-risk because of the lack of early exposure to reading activities.
Specific Reading Disability (Dyslexia) and Early Reading Problems
Some children who have had good reading experiences arrive at school lacking early reading skills. These children may not know letter names, they have difficulty in attaching sounds to letters, and they cannot perform routine phonological awareness tasks. These are children who are likely to be identified as having a specific reading disability. The most common estimate is that this group of children makes up about 5% of the total population of U.S. children. To learn more about why poor letter recognition, alphabetic principle and phonological awareness skills result in dyslexia, see the dyslexia information section of this web site.
Early Identification of Children who may Develop Reading Difficulties
Many school systems are now taking an aggressive approach to identifying students who may develop reading problems in the future. Part of this approach is administering letter naming and phonological awareness tests to students entering kindergarten and first grade. Children who lack critical skills can then be directly taught the skills and possibly head off future reading problems. The Reading Success Laboratory Assessment Module measures the adequacy of letter recognition and phonological awareness in kindergarten and grade 1 children, and the Skill Builder Module provides intervention materials designed to develop fluent letter recognition and letter/sound correspondence skills.