Help Children Crack the Reading Code (Part 2)

What does knowing how to sound out words do for the brain?

Posted Aug 26, 2013

Research in neuroscience confirms what parents and teachers should do to help children crack the reading code. Find out what showing kids how to sound out words does for their brain.

Steve Peha and I have worked with thousands of beginning readers and writers. We find a powerful evidence base in neuroscience for what works best in our experience. In Part 2 of this two-part series, we report compelling research from neuroscience that gives us affirmation followed by a second set of successful techniques for cracking the code.

Sounding Out Words

By Richard Gentry and Steve Peha

How Does the Reading Brain Work?

We found cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene’s groundbreaking synthesis of the neuroscience of language, Reading in the Brain [1] an unparalleled guide for parents and teachers and a compelling confirmation of our own experience regarding the best methods for teaching children to read. Here in a nutshell are some of his major observations that shore up our writing-for-reading strategies for preK—K and offer helpful insights to all teachers of beginning reading:

Dehaene: “Reading is conveying language through vision.”

Conveying language through vision is also the definition of writing. Indeed brain scan studies show that learning to write letters including early manuscript lessons help coordinate and activate linked regions of reading circuitry. (See a link to “What Learning Cursive Does to Your Brain” by PT blogger William Kelmm below)[2]

The fact that beginning reading and writing are one and the same almost [3] supports our Sounding Out Words strategy in Part 1: “Say it slowly, hold the sound, find the letter, write it down!” In our practical experience, beginning reading and writing with four and five year olds can be taught at the same time and they reinforce each other.

Dehaene supports phase observation.

The journey from beginning reading and writing to automatic reading and writing takes time and develops in phases. Don’t expect the beginner’s brain to work like yours which converts letter strings into speech unconsciously and effortlessly. The beginner has to learn “to sound it out” before developing the automatic pathways that you use. Our strategies in both Part 1 and below are designed to help the child begin the transition.

Dehaene says that whole-word approaches and whole language have been proven wrong.

There are two pathways to meaning that operate in parallel and reinforce each other in adult readers: phonological (letter-to-sound conversion) and lexical (a more direct route from letter strings to meaning). While very young kids can learn some words by sight, Dehaene stresses that beginning reading techniques such as the whole-word approach or purist whole language approaches have been proven wrong. Every beginning reader must be taught (or must intuit) letter-to-sound conversion for learning to read and write.

The child’s brain loves repetition.

The child’s brain loves repetition and practice to make things automatic. We don’t put kids through boring drills and drudgery, but we do establish enjoyable routines that allow for appropriate repetition and practice as part of learning to read and write.

Sounding out words is necessary but not sufficient. 

Letter-to-sound conversion is necessary but not sufficient. Reading is social so bonding with beginning readers and writers is important. Creating enthusiasm and interest is important. Building vocabulary and concept development through reading aloud is important. Talking about the good literature that you expose your beginning reading and writer to is indispensable. Combine these along with showing kids how to sound out words and you are on your way to raising a confident reader.

Sounding Out Words with Finger Spelling

Finger spelling helps kids sound out words by pulling them apart and putting them back together. It’s a great way to help beginning readers and writers notice, distinguish, identify, and manipulate the individual sounds in a word. This scaffolding technique inspired by the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, uses a tangible object (the hand) and physical movement (holding up thumb and fingers) to signal the number of sounds in a word and draw attention to their order. It can be used as an introductory activity both for segmenting sounds for writing and blending sounds for reading.

Follow these guidelines:

  • Model with two-sound words such as at, if, is, us, up (VC patterns) and three-sound words such as top, cap, and mop then try middle sounds such as pop, hot, and Bob (CVC patterns).
  •  Stick with the most frequent sound-letter associations.
  • Refer to letters as the sound the letter makes, not the letter name (the letter a is /ă/ not /ā/). 
  • Make the object of the game reading, writing, and spelling simple words. If kids ask about a complex spelling or multisyllabic words give them the word on a post-note. (night; elephant).

“Try this finger-spelling game with me. Then we’ll make some words.”

Say the word bat. Now put up your thumb and say the first sound of bat: (/b/). Next hold out your pointer finger and say the next sound of bat: (/ă/) Put out your next finger and say the last sound in bat: /t/. Now reach out and grab those sounds and pull them back into the word as we say it: ‘bat!’ Bat has three sounds.

“Let’s write it!”

Draw three blank letter boxes from left to right positioned side by side—one blank box for each sound/letter correspondence.   

 Finger spell again. After holding up each finger and saying the sound, have the child write the “sound” in its respective letter box.

 b + a + t

 “Let’s cut it apart!”

“You have all the sounds and letter pictures you need to make bat.”

“Let’s read a new word with these sound pictures!”

After finger spelling just a couple of words such as bat and pot, kids love making new words by manipulating the sound/letters. Make words and read them together.

“Let’s write a new word with these sound pictures!”

Spread the six letters out and get ready to move them into words blending the sounds together. Then write each word. Try making and writing words such as bat, at, pot, top, bop, tat (as in tit for tat), and pat. Add more and more patterns.

The Daily FourTM

With beginners, make finger spelling and making words a routine along with four daily routines that are great for beginning readers:

1)    Practice making letters.

2)    Practice finger spelling or the poem strategy for making words.

3)    Read aloud favorite books over and over and dig deeper into comprehension by talking about them.

4)    Draw and write every day.

Link to Part 1 of this series here:

Steve Peha is the founder of Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., an education consultancy in Carrboro, NC specializing in literacy and instructional leadership. In addition to providing teacher training for schools and districts throughout the US and Canada, he writes regularly on education practice and policy. His work has been featured on The Washington Post, The National Journal, Edutopia, and many others.

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.

[1] Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the Brain. New York: Viking.

[2] Klemm, W. (2012). “What Learning Cursive Does for the Brain.” Psychology Today Blog, March 14, 2013.

[3] Ehri L. C. (1997). Learning to read and learning to spell are one and the same, almost. In: Perfetti C A, Rieben L, Fayol M (eds.) Learning to Spell: Research, Theory, and Practice across Languages. LEA, Mahwah, NJ, pp. 237±69.