A painting of a nurse reading to a young girl by Mary Cassatt

Learning to Read & Reading to Learn

As a lover of reading and literature, early literacy and the acquisition of reading skills have always interested me greatly. At Texas A&M, I participated in sociological research related to early literacy and conducted research in a pre-Kindergarten Head Start program. My senior research thesis focused on early literacy intervention programs and immediate and long-term academic success.

Any student can experience reading difficulties. While some populations of students may experience more difficulty than others, there is little doubt as to what is needed to help a student to succeed. When all other factors are against them, a student given explicit reading instruction in the form of a phonics program coupled with early intervention will learn to read!

The Saint Constantine School uses a phonics-based approach to teaching reading that is often misunderstood. While whole words, or sight words, have a place in some areas of reading instruction, it does not teach the order and mechanics that are inherent to the English language. It is blatantly untrue that there are many “exceptions” within the English language. There are no exceptions – simply a lack of knowledge about phonemes and spelling rules (with the occasional Old English word thrown in the mix).

The ultimate goal of our reading curriculum is to produce readers who can tackle Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Dante’s Divine Comedy. While this is many years down the road for our youngest students, the building blocks start right away in pre-Kindergarten. There is a lot of temptation in our current climate of competition and desire for instantaneous outcomes to look for the quick fix. Parents often come to me, as a Kindergarten teacher, vexed by their child’s difficulty with blending words during their bed time reading routine. “Why doesn’t my child know the words they’ve seen so many times?”

Phonics is the slow fix, but it must be done right. There is little room to doubt the oft-quoted statistic that students who are not proficient in reading at grade level by the end of 3rd grade will face significant academic, which compound themselves the older the student gets. Third grade is typically the year that students do less learning to read and more reading to learn, a process that requires vast amounts of comprehension. A research study from Yale University showed that students who were poor readers at the beginning of 4th grade would continue to be poor readers all the way into high school.

Early intervention is key! The National Early Literacy Panel, with the help of researchers Lonigan, Schatschneider, and Westberg (2008), identified skills – including decoding, reading comprehension, and spelling – that create reading difficulties for children by compiling data from 299 peer-reviewed studies. Primary analysis revealed that when children were assessed in kindergarten “several variables [were] moderate to strong predictors of later outcomes in conventional literacy” (67). Alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, rapid naming tasks, and name writing were identified as “strong predictors of later reading and writing skills” (78) while an emphasis on oral language and concepts of print were weaker predictors.

Spell to Write and Read, Saint Constantine’s phonics curriculum, has as its base the emphasis on phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, and rapid naming tasks described above that contribute to reading acquisition and success. Within the space of an academic year, students (in the younger grade levels) move from phonemic awareness (rhyming, counting syllables, blending/segmenting orally, etc) to learning the single letter phonograms followed by concurrent instruction in grammar, multi-letter phonograms, spelling rules, and spelling words. Emphasis is placed on the rapid and repeated exposure to phonograms, rules, and words through writing and dictation. This style of instruction is pivotal.

Overall success in reading is overwhelmingly influenced by type of instruction over variables such as “age of learning to read,” “age at school entry,” “pre-school home instruction,” “early school progression,” and “teacher-rated academic performance” as observed in a report by Kern and Friedman (2009) on the Terman Life Cycle Study on the relationship between early educational milestones and lifelong academic success.

Phonics teaches reading explicitly and sequentially building on itself as students master the foundations over time. Our curriculum, Spell to Write & Read is particularly effective in its approach, because it connects phonics with our writing system (the formation of letters), not just the sound and the image. Because students have connected writing and the sounds, they spell in order to read.

It is a misconception to believe that because phonics skills are (perhaps) more slowly acquired, that mastery appropriate to the grade level cannot be expected. While this may be true in earlier grades, such as pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten, this is not true of that vital year of 3rd grade. When a student receives consistent, explicit phonics instruction from pre-Kindergarten upward, building in a manner according to the grade level, it is imperative to intervene by the 3rd grade year if sufficient reading skills have not been reached.

The Saint Constantine School is serious about reading and will always be serious about reading. Our robust phonics-based reading instruction is the means to get there. When we develop students’ reading skills well and give them the support that they need, we open an entirely new world to them – the world of literature where you can truly live a thousand lives before you die.

Lonigan, Christopher J., Chris Schatschneider, and Laura Westberg, 2008. “Developing Early Literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel.” Early Childhood Longitudinal Studies : 55-79.

Friedman, Howard S. and Margaret L. Kern. 2009. “Early educational milestones as predictors of lifelong academic achievement, midlife adjustment, and longevity.” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 30: 419-430.

The header image for this blog post is a painting by Mary Cassatt, titled “Nurse Reading to a Little Girl”