Can you remember learning to read?

If it was an unpleasant struggle, you are more likely to recall the experience.

If you learnt to read easily, you probably won’t remember much about it. Perhaps you can remember some of the early books which were read to you or some that you practised with? For most people, the process of becoming a reader is a blur – it just happened, something just clicked and that was it – you were a reader. You didn’t need to sound out any more and after seeing a word once, you could remember it next time you saw it.

Imagine that not happening for you. Imagine not being able to sound words out, not being able to recognise a word again even though you have just read it accurately. Imagine reading never being an enjoyable experience.

At Jumpstarting™ Learning Skills, we maintain that everyone, even those with dyslexia, can become pretty fluent readers provided they are taught in a way that matches how they learn best.

How do we become readers?

A theory put forward by Linnea C. Ehri, in the Journal of Research in Reading 1995 has become one of the most recognised and is frequently referred to. She describes four stages in learning to read:

Pre-Alphabetic (pre-school):

The learner doesn’t know what a letter is but gradually begins to recognise the look of familiar words e.g. their own name or favourite sweet.

Partial Alphabetic (start of school): The learner is introduced to the sounds the letters represent and starts to identify some simple words from the letter sounds they know. As the learner looks at the letters and says the word, it stored in memory so it can be recalled when seen again.

Mature Alphabetic (first two years of school) More letters and their sounds are learnt and readers begin to blend longer letter combinations together. Eventually, the reader remembers whole words as a unit.

Consolidated Alphabetic/Orthographic (second and third years of school) As the reader meets words over and over again, they begin to store and recognise letter patterns across different words e.g. once ‘’orn’ is learned in corn, horn, torn etc. it can be instantly recognised as a unit in a new word such as thorn.  

Neuroscience gives us more information about what is actually happening inside the brain as we read.  Through fMRI scans, we can see the different parts of the brain that are activated when we are reading. These show that three processes are going on:

  • The sound and pronunciation of the word,
  • A visual representation of the word,
  • An understanding of the meaning.

The areas of the brain involved in these processes are connected by complex networks

So how do we teach students to read?  

Ehri outlines the necessary knowledge and skills that children need to learn:

  1. The phonemes (the different sounds that make up a word e.g. in the word ‘table’ there are four phonemes t\a\b\le) There are 44 phonemes in English.
  2. The graphemes (how we write the 44 sounds e.g. the sound we hear in the word ‘oh’ can be as in goat, note, elbow, although). There are over 250 phonemes!
  3. Orthographic mapping (linking pronunciation, spelling and the meaning of the word). The process of orthographic mapping becomes automatic for most learners and the words get stored in memory.

The theory is that good quality phonics teaching focuses on letter/sound correspondence and once a student has learnt to decode a word and then seen it and repeated it several times, connections are made between the sound and way it looks and the word becomes stored in the Visual Word Form Area (Dehaene calls it the Brain’s Letterbox).

The importance of being able to store a visual representation is made absolutely clear throughout all significant documents, schemes, research etc.

For example, in the UK Guidelines Letters and Sounds – Principles and Practice of High-Quality Phonics 2007 it states:

‘It must always be remembered that phonics is the step up to word recognition.

Automatic reading of all words – decodable and tricky – is the ultimate goal.’

The importance of visual memory has been known for a long time:

‘If a student does not have visual memory, (s)he is never going to learn to read.’

Eleanor Johnson 1959

So why are some students still not learning to read?

Despite good quality phonics programmes, excellent teaching and hard work on the part of the student and everyone involved, around 10% to 20% of students still do not become fluent readers.  

The process described by Ehri takes place naturally in most brains – parents, teachers and children are thrilled to see they have ‘got it’, they have ‘taken off’ and just know the word automatically when they see it again.

The problem is, schools are using a model that reflects the way most brains learn.

Research (e.g. that carried out by Shaywitz), shows that the brains of people with dyslexia don’t make the same connections in the brain in the same way that fluent readers do.

People with dyslexia have difficulty with:

  • Segmenting and blending e.g. breaking down and identifying the different sounds that make up a word and then blending them back together.
  • Distinguishing sounds such as hearing the difference between bid, bad and bed.
  • Storing the visual image of the word – the Visual Word Form area or ‘Brain’s Letterbox doesn’t light up in the brain of a person with dyslexia.
  • Automaticity – because they are not storing the image of the word, they don’t get to recognise it automatically the next time they meet it.

So we can see that there is a mismatch here between the skills we are told a learner needs to have and the way a brain with dyslexia is operating.

Synthetic phonics programmes reflect the way most brains learn to read; they do not reflect the way the brain of a person with dyslexia processes information.

One model of how we learn to read has been taken to be the only way anyone can learn to read and so we are attempting to force every brain down the same route. The only response to a child who is struggling with synthetic phonics is to do more synthetic phonics with the aim that their brains will eventually begin to make the same connections and pathways that the brains of fluent readers make.

It’s a one-size-fits-all approach so it is no wonder that anyone whose brain does not fit the conventional pattern finds it a struggle.

The Jumpstarting Learning Skills System

The goal of learning to read, as stated above is ‘automatic reading of all words.’ We say there is more than one way to achieve that goal.

If you look at how reading is taught using synthetic phonics programmes, you can see how the focus is almost completely on the sounds, with some actions to help with memory.

Although everyone accepts you need to be able to store and recall a word in the ‘Brain’s Letterbox’, the way to do this is never addressed explicitly.

Dyslexia is neurobiological in nature and therefore, it is generally believed that the ability to store the visual image of a word cannot be taught.

The genius of Olive Hickmott was to look at the research, recognise that she couldn’t ‘see’ letters and words in her mind’s eye and decide to find a way to develop the connections and access the VWFA.

We now know that explicit training in visualisation skills can support early phonics teaching, help students develop their Brain’s Letterbox so that words can be remembered easily – an essential skill for fluent reading and accurate spelling.