How to teach children to read

Teaching children to read is one of the most complicated, arduous and time-consuming parts of teaching English. There’re many approaches to teaching to read nowadays. However, I’ll focus on two popular and effective methods: Phonics and “Look and say”.


Phonics is a method of teaching young learners how to read which focuses on how letters make sounds, and how these sounds make words. This approach is not meaning focused, it is only about decoding and pronunciation. Teachers are to put accuracy before speed because fluency (i.e. speed, accuracy, expression, and comprehension) will come with time.

Phonics is the study of the relationship between the spoken and written language, i.e. phonemic awareness and letter shape. Each letter or combination of letters represents a sound or sounds. The information is codified, as we must be able to recognise which symbols make which sounds in order to read. Children are taught 44 letter sounds, which is a mix of alphabet sounds:

  • grapheme (1 sound – 1 letter, e.g. c, t, a )
  • digraphs (1 sound – 2 letters, e.g. sh, th, ai, ue )
  • trigraphs (1 sound — 3 letters, e.g. ght )

This information is found in the Alphabetic Code. There’s no one order you choose to teach phonics, but it’s definitely better to go from simple to more complex phonics.

“Phonics involves the teaching of the transparent alphabet (e.g. /k/ as in «cat») before progressing onto the “opaque” alphabet (e.g. /k/ as in «school»). In other words, children are taught steps which are straightforward and easy before being taught the complications and variations of pronunciation and spelling of the full alphabetic code”(© Wikipedia).

Therefore children are first taught graphemes and high-frequency tricky words, then digraphs and trigraphs; then less frequency tricky words. Moreover, it’s better to base phonics on the target vocabulary, so phonics are not separated from the main course and children learn as they go along.

What are tricky words?

These are some words which don’t follow easily recognisable patterns. Children have to learn these words in their entirety, by sight. Native speakers learn a lot of these at school through poetry, so one way to teach them is to say a word that rhymes with the tricky word (for example, “shoe” rhymes with “zoo” and “key” rhymes with “tree”). Another good way to practise them is flashcard-type games.

When a child is learning to read there are crucial things to learn:

  • how the sounds are represented by written letters;
  • how to blend (synthesise) the sounds together to make words;
  • how to segment for spelling (e.g. spell your name).

Children are taught to read letters or groups of letters by saying the sound(s) they represent. For example, how to teach the word “cat” using the Phonics method.

  1. Say the sound [k].
  2. Have the student repeat the sound.
  3. Say the whole word, “cat” [kæt].
  4. Tell the student to repeat the whole word.
  5. Say some other words that start with [k]: “cake”, “cup”, “coke”.
  6. Prepare flashcards with different pictures. Say the words for the student to listen and choose the words with the sound [k] (to practise sound recognition)
  7. Tell the student to write the letter, then the word. (to practise tracing and letter recognition)
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Teachers have to read a full range of target vocabulary, sentences, comic strips, literature with the children and ensure that students have a full range of experience of activities associated with literacy such as role play, chants, songs, poetry, but children are not expected to ‘read’ text which is beyond them, and the method does not involve guessing the meaning from context, picture, and initial letter clues. If students do not know or cannot read, a teacher reads for them.

This is a great five-level course you can use.

Pros of Phonics:

  • Students learn sounds.
  • They learn to read step by step.
  • It’s more comprehensible, consistent and based on Lexis.
  • Children can read the words they don’t know if they know the sounds spelling

Cons of Phonics:

  • Students cannot start reading until they learn enough sounds.
  • They can read only the words with the sounds they know.
  • It can take a long time.
  • This approach is not comprehension-focused.

Look and say

Phonics can be compared with the whole word, or ‘Look and say’ approach, which focuses on recognising words. This is a method of teaching reading based on the visual recognition and memorizing of words rather than by the association of sounds and letters.

For example, using a “Look and say” approach a child may be shown the word “cat” on a flashcard and is told, “cat”. The child, over time, then learns that when they see the symbol “cat”, they are to say the word “cat”. This way English becomes kind of a logographic language, that has thousands of detailed symbols that represent individual words.

Picture-words or sight words account for up to 75% of the words used in beginning children’s print materials. Sight word lists have been compiled based on high-frequency words, for example, the Dolch word list. These words are divided into levels which are prioritised and introduced to children according to a frequency of appearance in beginning readers’ texts.

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Pros of “Look and say”:

  • Children learn high frequency and easy words fast.
  • Students learnt how to read “similar” new words by association and word recognition. For example, “cat”, “bat”, “rat”. Children recognize words automatically, as a result, a beginning reader will be able to identify the majority of words in a beginning text before they even attempt to read it (in phonics approach they see the similar letter sounds, when in “Look and say” they see the similar symbols).
  • It allows children to concentrate on meaning and comprehension as they read without having to stop and decode every single word.
  • It helps to learn tricky words with unusual spelling, as they cannot be sounded out using basic phonics knowledge.

Cons of “Look and say”:

  • Children are required to memorise thousands of words and cannot decode new words they come across independently. Instead of having to remember only 26 letters and their matching phonemes, children have to use their memory space to remember each and every word as a symbol.
  • Children may be stuck in reading if they don’t know how to read certain letters.
  • Students may have difficulties with spelling.
  • You always need an image: pictures or miming which doesn’t work well for abstract things of certain phrases.

Based on the information above I would recommend combining both methods to make teaching reading more productive, comprehensible, logical and consistent.

Комментарии (1)
  • Фото аватара

    The problem is that this ‘look and say’ approach is used way more than it should be, IMHO. In minimum in Russia. I teach many young Russian students who, at the age of 10-11, still cannot figure out how to read and panick whenever they come across new words no matter how short they are. I agree that digging way too deeply into reading rules can be boring and there are numerous discussions nowadays as to whether we need to teach young students things like transcriptions at all, etc. But phonics is still a weak link in this chain. My 4 y. O. Daughter goes to school in the UK where they are have been taught how to read right from the beginning of F2 level (reception class). Now, almost a year later, they can read complex words like the, you, words ending with -e, but look and say I’d say takes at most 25-30% of the total time. To me this sounds about right and is proven by good results. Would be great to see the curriculum updates in Russian public schools, too.


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