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How do children Learn to Read?

Speaking comes naturally to kids. However, when it comes to reading, it is quite different. Parents and Teachers take quite some effort to teach kids reading. They may never read if it is never taught. (Be also aware that, there are alternate unschooling thoughts, where the belief is that kids can read on their on)

Speaking comes naturally to kids. They listen to what adults speak. Initially, they repeat, imitate, and later, understand. Then, they start to speak. Since this happens before even we think much about it, it seems quite natural. Kids quickly pick up multiple spoken languages too. It is all so fast.

However, when it comes to reading, it is quite different. Parents and Teachers take quite some effort to teach kids reading. They may never read if it is never taught. (Be also aware that, there are alternate unschooling thoughts, where the belief is that kids can read on their own)

Now, coming to how kids are taught to read, there are mainly two very different ways of doing it.

  • Phonics: Children are taught how to Sound-Out new words. Phonics is a series of rules, which children are taught to use while trying to read a word.
  • Whole Word Approach: Here Children are encouraged to memorize a few hundred words. They see the flashcards of these written words and learn to identify and read them by the looks of them. This is also called the Sight Words approach since the words are identified by the sight. Some 200 such sight words are said to be enough to understand 50-80% of written English.

While Phonics aims to formalize the technique to ready any word, the Sight words approach aims to create early readers by equipping them with the most common words to jump-start the early reading.

The sight words approach looks quite easy to understand for anyone. There are many pre-defined word sets like the Dolch Word List, which partitions the 200 essential words into different groups like pre-primer, primer, 1st Grade, 2nd Grade, and 3rd Grade. Children memorize these words by the sight. Most of the written material is of these words and they read out quickly (without thinking much!)

The Phonics approach has quite some rules and introduces concepts like Vowels, Consonants, and Syllables. There are several rules based on these and children learn these rules to sound out words. Reading will be slow and halting initially, but in a few years, children learn. Even in Phonics, there are some words, which cannot be sounded out - they are rule breakers and are learned by sight (e.g. was, are, one, come, any). This is an area where both approaches merge.

Different schools follow different methods, and there is no clear verdict. Parents need to be aware, there are these two different methodologies and need to play along the way their child is taught at school. Memorizing some 200 words is acceptable to many, but when it is extended to the next 1000 words, the debate starts.

A small set of memorized words (for kickstarting the early reading) and Phonics rules for the general case may be a feasible approach.

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