Teaching Children to Read


I have been asked to share what to do when a child is not learning how to read with the present “Whole Language” instructional methods currently in use. I have decided that the only way I can reach enough concerned parents is to put down the essentials of my remedial methods into printed form. While the written form will lack the personal one-on-one corrective feedback that only tutoring can provide, parents can find general direction and effective practices in the following pages. The key essentials are the sequence of steps, the combination of learning letter sounds, blending them together, and using multiple formats to practice developing skills.

The “whole language” method of instruction leaves about 30% of American children unable to unlock the code with which most English language words are constructed. About 30% of English words have been derived from our multiple ethnic backgrounds, and those words are unlikely to be phonetically predictable. The remaining 70% can be expected to demonstrate significant consistency. The newer methods of reading will indicate that they use “phonics,” but on closer examination, there seldom is a focus on anything except initial letter sounds – sounds that start words. Little attention is given to understanding whether a vowel will make a short sound, a long sound or even be pronounced at all. Children need tools to break words into syllables so they can predict correct vowel sounds. It is not enough, however, to break words apart into individual sounds or even syllables. Many immature readers need explicit direction on how to reassemble the separate components into a whole, recognizable and familiar-sounding word. Thus, blending sounds together is an equally important skill.

Most parents of children who were taught in “whole language” classrooms have noticed several troubling signs. Their children are very likely to search for clues to new words by looking at pictures instead of the word itself. Parents often report they notice that their children appear to spend more time looking at pictures than words, and that the children have increased difficulty once books no longer have pictures. The children frequently lack confidence and look at the face of the adult for clues. Their primitive “phonics” skills cause them to “read” words by saying words that start with the same letter as the printed word. The word the child says may make sense, but more typically it may NOT make any sense at all. Astonishingly, these children have been taught to guess and to use pictures to help them guess. They are encouraged to not strive to decode each word accurately, so long as the passage makes sense. These destructive habits are difficult to “un-teach”, but good reading skills require that such poor habits be changed.

To undo two or three years of improper teaching, a first step is to teach the child to “play” with sounds. There are many superb sources that indicate how to develop what is called /phonemic awareness/. That awareness is often lacking in children trained by “whole language.” They need to listen to words and say the first or last SOUND – not letter name. They should be encouraged to count the number of sounds they hear in short words, how many syllables they hear in longer words, and to say words that rhyme with short words. Children may generate silly words, but they are acceptable rhymes. They can play with compound words to answer questions such as, “Say baseball without saying base.” As they get better at this game, they are ready to say words without beginning or ending sounds, such as “say tan without /t/.” The primary purpose is that playing with sounds and word parts, and manipulating them in their heads, develops essential pre-reading skills.

Most poor readers are unable to give the correct pronunciation of letter sounds. They may acquire some semblance of the consonant sounds from their /whole language/ classroom, but typically they do not pronounce them in a way that will help them to sound out new words. Interestingly, I watched a video of a “whole-language” classroom teacher working on a phonics-type lesson. The children were asked to put letters in matching boxes for the individual sounds in a word, but when she asked them to say the sounds, the children read the NAMES of the letters. This will not transfer easily to unlocking new words. If they teach them the sounds at all, their teachers will tell the children to say the consonant sounds as follows: /buh/, /cuh/, /duh/, /fff/, /guh/, and so on. When the children try to use these sounds to figure out a new word, they have essentially added an extra load of /garbage/ information that the mind must discard to figure out the word. To illustrate, if the children read the word /cat/, their teacher has taught them that the sounds would be said like this: /cuh — ahh –tuh/. No matter how many times they repeat it, they will not arrive at /cat/.

Therefore, one of the first tasks a remedial teacher faces is to help children UN-learn their way of saying letter sounds and to teach them the correct way of pronouncing each sound. The correct pronunciation of consonant sounds is easy to describe, but it is difficult to achieve without practice. In essence, the teacher must articulate the letter name and then repeat it but without any trace of a vowel sound attached to it. For example, /D/ is typically pronounced /Dee/. To hear thesound of the letter by itself, it is essential for parent-teachers to learn how to get rid of the extra vowel sounds. To do that takes practice. Here’s what to do: just start to say /dee/, but stop before starting the long ‘e’ sound. With some practice, this becomes easier, and it is then possible to teach the children. While this sounds somewhat hard, it really simplifies the child’s reading task significantly, because now the only sounds that they will make as they “sound out” words are really a part of the final word they want to read. Soon, each of these sounds will become automatic and a part of their repertoire of reading skills. After that, they do not need to think much about these sounds unless they need to slow the task down to figure out a new or difficult word.

Once words can be unlocked (or decoded), it is then possible to apply and generalize skills to entire word families that reinforce the same principles. For example, once a child can read a short-vowel /a/ word, such as /hat/, it is an easy transition to reading /mat/, /sat/, /fat/, and so on. Children enjoy building columns of words that end with similar sounds.

Beginning blends can be added quickly, such as /slat/ or /brat/. It becomes an easy step to add endings as well, such as /ed/, /ing/, or converting words into plurals, such as /bats/. The child who is taught this sequence of skills becomes quickly capable of extending his skills. It is not much longer before he is reading longer words by adding only two or three more basic strategies for dividing words into syllables. While this foundation will not permit decoding many higher grade-level words, it will suffice for equipping children to read words that are predictable and useful up to a fourth/fifth grade level. Unusual content area words can be taught individually.

Decoding is not enough, however, to create a “good” reader. Thus, once a child has begun to learn correct vowel sounds, correct pronunciation of each consonant sound, and has learned to blend them together, she is encouraged to begin reading of text. This is critical: the text for remedial readers must be very carefully selected. The text must be limited to words containing only those sounds that have been learned thus far in isolation. Further, the text must be meaningful. At the very early stages, it is almost impossible to avoid simple sentences, such as “A fat rat sat at a mat.” This lasts for a very short time, however, and older remedial readers must be reminded that the short words they are practicing are really also syllables in the more advanced texts that they are probably already using. It helps greatly to show them words that use these short-vowel syllables to boost their confidence.

“Whole language” teachers recommend strongly that children should read what they call “authentic” literature – text in the original version by famous authors. Unfortunately, such “authentic” literature is seldom written with controlled vocabulary or word choices that permit a child to generalize and practice new skills and rules. It is very helpful to read such literature to a young, struggling reader, but such text should never be the reading material from which a child learns to practice new skills; instead, consistent sound-to-symbol phonics-based materials should be used for practicing reading skills.

At the same time that the child is learning to pronounce, read aloud and blend new words, the child should be learning to write words that illustrate the sounds currently under focus. This step of teaching by dictation directly addresses the very weak spelling skills many parents notice in children taught in “whole language” classrooms. For example, when the child is learning to read /short a/ words, he/she should be given regular chances to write (encode) words that are taken from reading lists. One significant difference between my method and current spelling practices is that I focus on having the child spell words by saying letter SOUNDS, not letter names.

To illustrate, consider how different the sounds of letter names are from the sounds of the word /bat/. The word is not read aloud as /bee/ /ayyy/ /tee/. The word /bat/ is to be spelled by the child saying each sound in correct sequence as they write it. This reinforces the correspondence between sound and the letter-symbol we use to write that sound. This quickly transfers into more independent writing compositions and provides great confidence for the child. Once the child has mastered making consistent vowel sounds, consonant sounds and frequently used blends and digraphs (two letters that merge their sounds to make a new sound – such as /sh/), then the child is ready for some more challenging reading. Gradually new sounds are introduced in isolation, practiced in lists, and then written and read in stories. Typically within four to six months of instruction, two hours per week, the child has made dramatic improvement in reading skills.


The sequence with which the remedial process moves forward is important. Several negative habits may be already well-developed, and the child is usually a very uncertain reader. He is not confident in his ability to unlock new words, and he has developed a significant dependence on multiple clues that are not part of the text nor the word itself. He has been taught to depend on context, pictures and first letters.

It would seem to be flying in the face of logic to take an insecure reader all the way back to the first steps of reading, but it is a most effective method. I have found it very helpful to find a list of middle-school level vocabulary words and use them to demonstrate to new students that each of those longer words can be unlocked with the skills that I will teach them. They seem to delight in the promise that the seemingly simple skills will have significant payoff. I am very frank with my beginning clients. I am careful not to disparage their teacher nor their school’s choices of reading curriculum. What I do tell them is that some methods of reading do not work well for all students, and that I have found something that usually works well for children in their situation. I let them know right away that they may feel amazed to see how simple and basic the first lessons will be, but I ask them to work very hard. I tell them to expect that within two months they will see why I choose to do things as I do.

With the ground rules in place, the children seem to respond well to the challenge of learning the correct way to read the letter sounds and paying attention to the way their mouth, tongue and throat work to make those sounds. They are often surprised at how uncertain they really are about the correct sounds for the vowels and consonants. The focus on the actual formation of the sounds seems to fascinate them, but it also helps them to learn to pay more attention to how the sounds differ. This helps to quickly capture their interest and allows them to feel like they have some new skill that they did not have before.

I must include here a note on the sequence of consonant letters that I use. My training is based on principles from Direct Instruction as taught by Sigfried Engelman. Thus, I am careful to adhere, for the most part, to those sequences in the letters I introduce. His theory reflects the conviction that children will learn to blend letters into words most readily when the letter sounds themselves can be held to make continuous sounds. When used at the beginning of words, these sounds can be easily maintained and “stretched” out to flow smoothly into the next sound. The consonants /m/, /r/, /s/, /f/, /n/, /l/, and /v/ at the beginning of words are most easily blended into the vowel sounds behind them. Some other letter sounds are made with quick puffs or popping of air bursts, such as /t/, /k/, /b/ or /p/. These are used at the ends of words at first. Once “blending” skills are secure, then the words that start with stop sound consonants are taught.


After a child can correctly make the sound of a single vowel, I introduce a very essential skill that I call “stretch and snap.” I use a 3-4 inch rubber band to write a single word with large letters. I stretch the rubber band between my hands, uncovering one letter at a time and saying the sound of that letter until I uncover the next letter. Of course, sometimes it becomes a game to see if I can keep the sound going and going and going, and the children think it’s great fun to see me run out of air. After all the letters are uncovered, I release the stretch and “snap” the rubber band. “What word?” I ask. Once the children have learned to accomplish this same smooth blending of sounds, they are encouraged to “snap” the word back together and say it quickly until they recognize the word. At first, it is difficult for the children to accomplish the blending without stopping or pausing between each sound, but with consistent practice, they are able to master the task.

I insist that the child use “Stretch and Snap” to figure out each new word, and we practice extensively for the first several lessons. After a word has been mastered, I do not require the child to use “Stretch and Snap” since the child is developing an ability to “recognize” the word as a whole. I keep emphasizing that “Stretch and Snap” is a tool that the child will continue to need to figure out bigger and bigger words not yet known. We continue to add new words to the list, and I work on “stretch and snap” until I believe the child has demonstrated mastery, or consistent ability to use the technique, saying correct sounds without pauses.


Once the “stretch and snap” skill is firmly learned, then the child is ready to learn how to “stretch and snap” words that do not start with the continuous sounds. When a word starts with sounds that are quickly made and stop, such as /t/, it is difficult for beginning readers to reassemble the sounds into a whole word. Thus, I teach them to make a kind of stutter-step. Here is a sample dialogue I might use to unlock the consonant /t/ in a beginning position. I use the word /tap/.

Me:    [I point to a new word, /tap/]   Listen: This word starts with a sound that I cannot keep going —


    /t/  /t/  /t/     What happens?

Child:   The sound stops.

Me:    Right. I cannot keep it going, so how can I do /stretch and snap/?

    Listen to me do it.

**At this point, it is important to teach this step carefully! You as teacher must practice until you are able to make a kind of /stutter-step/. You say the /t/ and immediately repeat the /t/ LINKED with the /aaaa/ sound. Absolutely NO pause or gap is allowed between the sounds. This is essential.

     /t /taaaaaa/ p/      What word?    [Repeat –]  /t/t/aaaaa/p/     Did you hear what I did?

    Watch me again.    /t/taaaaaaa/p/   What word?   /Tap/

    Do it with me.

    /t/taaaaaaaa/p/   What word?   /Tap/   Good!

This procedure is demonstrated multiple times with several new words that start with non-continuous consonant sounds. It works best to have a list with several examples that are familiar in every respect except for the first letter. When two new components appear at once, it is impossible to determine what is causing the child to make mistakes. When only one thing is new at a time, it is easier to determine what is causing the errors to occur and correct that cause.