Until she was 6, my daughter could not read even simple three-letter words, while many friends her age powered their way through books by Roald Dahl. She could recognize individual letters but she could not identify the sounds that each letter made. This method is known as phonics and educators use it to teach children to read by linking each letter to the sound it makes. Children need to identify the sounds of letters and put these sounds together to read the word as a whole.
I was worried about my daughter’s struggles with reading so I enrolled her in a specialised reading program where her teacher worked with her individually and systematically, teaching her phonics but also equipping her with the skills to read tricky words. After all, English is a tricky language with unpredictable pronunciations and there are numerous exceptions to every rule. A rigorous and thorough approach really helped my daughter and she now reads advanced chapter books with ease.
There is no doubt that the pandemic put our children behind the learning curve in basic reading and writing skills. But children have also been struggling with reading and missing benchmarks earlier too.
In 2018, Gurugram-based English reading platform for children Stones2Milestones and the Australian Council for Education Research (ACER) published a report titled ‘FAST Reading Assessment.’ The report assessed reading levels among children from grades 4 to 6 in urban and semi-urban private English medium schools, surveying 19,765 children across 106 schools in 6 states in India. It found that only 12.5% of children in class four and only 2.7% of children in grades 5 and 6 were at an age-appropriate reading level. In fact, 11% of children in the fourth grade did not even posses the abilities of the lowest level reader.
For Pune-based Vibha Rao’s 5-year-old daughter, learning to read is a struggle. “My daughter’s school follows a phonics program and the program confuses her. I never learned phonics in school, so I have no idea how to teach her. She cannot put sounds together at all.”
It may seem effortless but skilled reading requires many interwoven abilities, from background knowledge and sound processing skills to vocabulary. Between the age of 1 to 3, children look at a word as if it were a picture. Between 3 and 4, they recognise letters of the alphabet, and link sounds and words together but not sufficiently enough for reading. They grasp vowel and consonant sounds, and when they reach age 5 or 6, they start to recognise elements of the language and patterns. For example, if they are familiar with the word “bread”, they can then read the word “spread” and figure out other such patterns in the books.
Parents need to look for programs that address all these skills. Here’s what you can do to help your children learn how to read.
Combine whole word reading and phonics
According to Sima Bhushan, founder of the Learning Arc, a learning centre based in Bengaluru, schools and reading programs need to adopt a combination of whole word reading and phonics instead of only working with phonics.
“Also, there is not enough focus on comprehension,” she adds. “When I work with children, I work on note-taking. This is to make sure that the child understands what she is reading.”
Bhushan also notes that with more screen time, attention and concentration level in kids has come down significantly. Children no longer turn to books during their free time and are overstimulated. “Learning to read requires children to make a lot of assumptions,” she says. “When I was young, I would read books and I could immediately pick up patterns in them. Today, children do not have that much patience to figure these patterns out for themselves. ”
Look for a multifaceted reading program
Bhushan stresses the need for an enjoyable and meaningful reading program that involves many activities such as memory games, mazes, mind-mapping, and spelling drills. “When we teach children to read a word, we should also teach them how to break the word, and also, in an abstract manner, to put it back together,” she says. Programmes should also be activity-based and include a lot of movement, learning through touch, kinaesthetic and comprehension tasks.
Most importantly, they should also link reading with writing. Children should be given opportunities to connect their learning and to understand exceptions to rules in phonics. Above all, reading programs must also have sequencing activities because reading is sequential in nature.
Sandhya Gatti, head of pedagogy at the Chaman Bhartiya School in Bengaluru, observes how over the last few years, she’s come across children who are “familiar with the letters but (cannot) read whole words or identify sounds”. She says that “this happens when schools do not follow a thorough reading approach. There is an entire system to reading and teachers need to follow it scientifically.”
Parents and other adults can play a role too
My daughter finds it rich that I ask her to clock in a minimum of two hours of reading time every day when I am always on my mobile or on my laptop. As parents, we need to model reading behaviour, read with our children, and be passionate about spending time in the company of books.
“I remember spotting a book by Jules Verne in our school library,” says Gatti. “This was a book I enjoyed when I was young and I was so excited to rediscover it. This excitement rubbed off on the children in the school, who immediately wanted to issue the book too.”
Reading is important for a child’s overall development and academic success, giving them a lifelong advantage. As parents, it is easy to get downcast when our children struggle with reading and other children seem to race ahead. All you need is a strategy overhaul and a love for books that is constantly nurtured.
Shweta Sharan is a freelance journalist who lives in Mumbai.