Sight Words Are So 2016: New Study Finds the Real Key to Early Literacy
April 12, 2017
It’s no secret that teaching a child to read is a pretty big deal. Research has proven again and again that children who grasp early literacy skills by the end of first grade become strong readers for the rest of their lives, while those who struggle early on continue to do so throughout their schooling. So, no pressure, right?
This is exactly why, when it came time to choose a focus for my career in education, I opted for the upper elementary grades. Multiplying fractions? Thesis statements? Identifying the author’s purpose? Those I can handle. Reading? No, thank you.
But as the mom of two preschoolers, early literacy skills are back on the table now.
Last year, I sat across from my son’s preschool teacher as she calmly shrugged and told me that he wasn’t yet showing interest in letter recognition nor writing his own name. On the surface, I copied her even, close-mouthed smile and nodded as she assured me that this was not unusual for a boy his age. On the inside, I felt my heart pound while I mentally outlined the things I should have been doing at home to encourage his early literacy.
A year later, though, with no interventions from me or his teacher, my son began to write his name and became obsessed with letters, letter sounds, and letter recognition. He just needed the time and space to come to this understanding himself.
We were lucky that his fall birthday meant he narrowly missed the kindergarten cut off and had an extra year in preschool. We were lucky he was given the time and space to come to his own understanding in his own time.
But what happens when time and space aren’t available? What happens when children in kindergarten are pushed towards early reading, even if they are not developmentally ready?
A 2010 article in the Harvard Education Letter points out that modern children are still meeting developmental milestones at the same ages as children studied in the 1920s. That is, children’s abilities have not changed over the past century. The educational standards they’re held to have, however.
With the introduction of Common Core Standards, kindergarteners are now required to read, write, and even participate in research projects. This is a stark contrast to the play-based kindergarten of the 1980s. Is the emphasis on sight word memorization and explicit reading instruction misguided?
A new study seems to point to yes.
Published in the January 2017 issue of the journal “Developmental Psychology”, the study concludes that the most valuable early literacy skill to encourage in kindergarten is neither alphabetic knowledge nor memorization of key sight words. In fact, it’s not a reading skill at all.
The best indicator of future success as a reader is actually a child’s ability to use invented spelling as he writes.
Researchers assessed 171 kindergartners on measures of oral vocabulary, alphabetic knowledge, letter-sound association, word reading, and invented spelling. The same students were assessed a year later, and modeling revealed a causal relationship between invented spelling and increased literacy skills.
Simply put, children who used invented spelling developed stronger reading skills over time, regardless of their existing vocabulary, alphabetic knowledge, or word reading skills.
So, what exactly is invented spelling?
Invented spelling refers to a young child’s beginning attempts to spell words. Using what they know and understand about letters and writing, children who use invented spelling are encouraged to create their own spellings based on their own phonetic knowledge. As their phonetic knowledge grows, their invented spellings become more and more similar to actual word spellings.
For example, a very young child might begin writing words by using a series of non-letter scribbles. As that child progresses, he or she will begin to use random letters, and then consonants consistent with the first sound in a word. Eventually, the child will grasp both the first and last sounds, and finally the vowels or other syllables in between.
A child writing the word PEOPLE might progress from random scribbles to:
before finally reaching PEOPLE.
A recent article in Psychology Today underlines the importance of this process, pointing out that “reflection about how to spell a word allows the child to actively practice making decisions, rather than passively memorizing.” In this way, students internalize letter-sound associations rather than simply attempting to memorize the rules as instructed.
How can we help our children develop this integral skill?
To encourage development and progression of invented spelling, children should simply be encouraged to write. While writing has previously been thought of as a skill separate from reading, and one that can only be applied once a child has a basic grasp on reading, the new study suggests that writing and reading skills emerge concurrently, and that reading may actually rely more heavily on writing, rather than vice versa.
Dr. J. Richard Gentry, who writes the column Raising Readers, Writers, and Spellers for “Psychology Today”, suggests that children should be allowed the time and space to piece together invented spellings using their own knowledge of letters and sounds. Gentry then suggests that “having the child read back his or her own writing in conventional English written by the teacher integrates the child’s invented spelling into a reading and fluency lesson.”
In other words, rewriting what the child has written, and allowing them to read it again will help deepen their understanding of the letters and sounds used.
So, the next time you’re tempted to correct your young child’s spelling, instead encourage him or her to read back what has been written and praise the attempt. From time to time, rewrite the sentence in conventional spelling for your child to read back to you, but don’t make a big deal out of pointing out the differences or correcting the misspellings. The key is for your child to internalize the letter-sound associations as he or she learns to write.
With a solid understanding of how letters and sounds combine to make words, your child will be on the path to reading success.