Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
World Book Day: The best methods to help children read
Author: Zelda Barends
Published: 23/04/2024

​World Book Day is celebrated annually on 23 April. In an opinion piece for the Cape Times, Dr Zelda Barends from the Department of Curriculum Studies offers a few guidelines that teachers and parents could follow to improve children's reading skills.

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

​Zelda Barends*

In a country like South Africa, teachers play a very important role in improving the reading skills of learners, especially those in the Foundation Phase (Grade R to 3). By enhancing the reading proficiency of learners, they help to lay the foundation for future learning and academic success.

It is, therefore, crucial that effective reading instruction takes place in the classroom. However, intense debates such as the 'Reading Wars' continue to rage on in literacy education as to what methods are the best for teaching reading.

Reading Wars have been characterised by disagreements over the best approaches to teaching reading, particularly focusing on the debate between phonics (a component of reading instruction that focuses on the relationship between individual sounds and the letters that represent them) and whole language instruction methods i.e. methods used to teach reading. They are not just about differing pedagogical approaches, but can also be seen as a struggle for power in discussions about reading instruction.

Fortunately, reading instruction has shifted in recent years. It is no longer based on opinion of how children learn to read, but rather informed by science. In 2020, the National Reading Panel (NRP) was appointed to review reading research and determine the most effective methods for teaching reading. The NRP reviewed over 100,000 studies and analysed them to determine which methods work the best when teaching children to read. They concluded that there are five essential components of reading – known as the “Big Five" – that should be taught for effective reading instruction. They are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to notice, think about and work with the individual sounds in words. Phonics refers to the understanding of how letters and groups of letters link to sounds to form letter-sound relationships and spelling patterns. It involves learning letter-sound correspondences and common spelling patterns. Fluency is the ability to read a text accurately and quickly and recognise words instantly, whereas vocabulary is understanding the meanings of words through direct and indirect instruction and developing tools to discover the meaning of an unknown word. Comprehension refers to making sense of what we read. Reading comprehension requires background knowledge, understanding sentence and text structures, monitoring understanding, and connecting ideas.

For reading instruction to be effective, it should be systematic, explicit, cumulative and sequential. By implication, teachers should systematically review the reading skills of learners to improve their memory, explicitly teach concepts in our language syllable types, phonics patterns, and syllable division rules.  Lessons and instructional routines should be cumulative and must build on previously learned skills and instruction should be sequential meaning it must begin with the easiest and most basic elements and progress to more difficult and complex material. Teachers should also follow a set scope & sequence of concepts.

As we celebrate World Book Day on 23 April, we should also ask a very important question: What does this mean for supporting learners on their learning-to-read journey?

Children often encounter in their reading sight words or high frequency words that have a part that can't be sounded out. Learners need to learn which phonemes (sounds) match the graphemes (letters) and which are irregular. Parents and teachers should allow learners to practice writing such words several times. Such words should also be included in games and daily instructional routines. Supporting readers with phonics demands patience as learning how the 26 letters in our written alphabet are used to represent the roughly 44 sounds in our spoken language (for English) allows learners to unlock the code of our written language. Give learners time to sound out the word and provide them with decodable texts that have sentences that tend to stick to letter patterns learners are learning or have already learnt. These texts help children practice applying the phonics rules they are learning. We should also help learners notice words and word patterns in the classroom or at home.

Supporting fluency can be exceptionally fun too. When decoding skills become automatic and reading is fluent, learners can more easily focus their attention on understanding words and text. Fluency is the bridge to comprehension! Teachers and parents can help their child develop reading fluency through a few simple and fun activities such as paired reading and recording learners reading whilst having them listen to their own reading.  In this way they can self-correct their reading. Whilst reading many word meanings are learnt, but before children can read text independently, vocabulary should be taught through oral language interactions and reading books aloud. Parents and teachers should take advantage of any opportunity to use new words in conversations.

What should we do when young readers are stuck on a word? Should we tell them what the word is? Should we prompt them to look at the picture? Or should we tell them to guess what the word is based on the context of the story?  It is sometimes very difficult to know what to do when a reader is stuck. However, we need to remember that we must draw children's attention to the text and not away from it. In doing so, we could ask them to look at the word, slide through the sounds to encourage grapheme-by-grapheme (letter or letter groups) decoding. This encourages blending through the sounds (combining individual sounds to form a word) smoothly without a big pause after each sound (continuous blending or connected phonation). If all else fails, we should help learners identify parts that they know in the word.

Learning to read is a complex process dependent on so many factors and variables.  On World Book Day, we should applaud all teachers who try to make sense of this complexity and learn every child how to read.

*Dr Zelda Barends is a senior lecturer in the Department of Curriculum Studies at Stellenbosch University. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Stellenbosch University.