Letters & Sounds

The science of PUP Reading: Literacy skills for children 4+

Letters & Sounds refers to mechanical skills: the reading of individual words based on a knowledge of letters and sounds, and how to blend individual letter/sound units into words, automatically and fluently. Letters & Sounds are often all that we think of when we think of reading: and they are crucial and necessary, but they are not sufficient on their own.

1. Children who read well can distinguish between the sounds they hear..They can tell you that dog, dig and dad all have the same sound at the beginning, /d/. They can also change the order of sounds, and add or take away sounds from words; for example, they can tell you that spark without the /s/ is park, or that when you add an /l/ after the /f/ in the word fat, you get flat.

2. Children who read well know their letters well, and know the sounds that those letters or letter combinations make. So they know that B and b are both the letter b, and they know that the sound that the letter b makes is /b/, as in boy and bat. They also know that s makes the /s/ sound as in snake, but when combined with h, makes the /sh/ sound as in sheep.

3. Strong readers can automatically decode words by blending the sounds of each letter or letter combination (such as ch or sh). In fact, they know the letters and corresponding sounds so well that they can decode new words automatically while they are reading (e.g., when they see the word bunch in print, they know the sounds that b, u, n and ch make individually, and they also know how to combine the sounds to read the word bunch). Over time, children learn that there are some more predictable spelling patterns in English (e.g., igh in high, sigh and sight; cy in cyclone and juicy) that help them read and spell individual words.

4. These successful readers also can read a whole lot of words that aren’t decodable -- words such as one and what. They memorize these words and their unexpected spelling patterns, and then they can use this word knowledge to “decode” words that don’t seem to be decodable. For instance, when these successful readers know the word one, they can then decode the word done when they read it for the first time.

5. Children who read well read words fluently. That means that they read at a reasonable pace and with the right intonation – making the words sound like oral language when they are reading, emphasizing the right syllables and words in sentences and using punctuation information as they read. Keep in mind, however, that just because a child is reading fluently does not mean that she is understanding everything she is reading-- it’s more complicated than that.

These word-reading skills are all essential, but sometimes children who seem to be reading well enough are actually relying on strategies that are not sustainable. For example:

Just memorizing words is not enough. Children need to be able to figure out new words that they have never read before or they won’t read successfully on their own. In fact, when children have trouble applying sounds to letters they see and decoding words, they are going to struggle to read. The good news is that there are lots of proven programs that can be used to teach children these letter/sound skills, but they need systematic instruction in schools, or by trained specialists if they are struggling and behind their peers in Letters & Sound skills later in grade one or especially by grade 2.

Just using context is not sustainable. Children can’t be constantly using pictures or just thinking about what the words probably say based on the rest of the sentence: reading words has to be done accurately and automatically. Why? Because if children are working too hard at figuring out how to read individual words, they don’t have the capacity to be thinking about and understanding what they are reading-- and it’s this comprehension that reading is all about.