Teaching Beginning Reading to Young Children

Toddler laying on a bed reading a book with mother sitting nearby.

What is the Research on Teaching Beginning Reading?

Over the last 50 years, teaching beginning reading to young children has been the subject of much research and considerable controversy (i.e., “The Reading Wars”).

At the request of Congress, the National Reading Panel looked at a multitude of research on how to teach beginning reading skills to young children. The panel published their findings in April 2000, citing 5 critical areas of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. Their report summarized the effective practices in teaching reading for each instructional strand.

Despite the passage of 21 years, little has changed in what researchers know about effective practices in teaching beginning reading.

 In 2019, the Deans for Impact organization reviewed the research data on beginning reading. Their goal was to learn more about how young children develop agency, numeracy, and literacy.  This guide summarizes the most recent scientific knowledge about how children develop, learn to read and write proficiently and develop math skills. This article will summarize their findings of reading and writing.

Learning Alphabetic Principles

Children need to learn both letters and sounds in the English language to understand letter-sound relationships.

Letter sound relationships form the foundational understanding needed for fluent reading. Students need explicit instruction in letter-sound relationships to learn the sounds that letters and combinations of letters represent.  In addition, they also need to understand the connection between spelling patterns and word pronunciations. This helps them improve beginning reading and decode printed words into words they already know. Phonemic awareness skills help students understand how spoken sounds connect to letter symbols.

Understanding phonics is a foundational skill for beginning readers.

Phonics skills help beginning readers become stronger readers. By learning specific graphemes, students recognize patterns and can read and write more words. We also know that phonics skills must be explicitly taught.

Increasing word knowledge can help beginning readers like this girl looking at the Oxford Dictionary improve their reading comprehension.
Learning New Words Builds Stronger Understanding

Helping Beginning Readers Become Fluent Readers

Beginning readers need to decode words quickly and efficiently develop automaticity.

Teachers can model fluent reading so children can hear what proficient reading sounds like. As they read aloud, teachers stop to call attention to essential elements in the passage. These elements include new vocabulary, punctuation markers, and unfamiliar word types in the passage. After listening to the teacher, students practice reading the passage several times aloud to improve their performance. The teacher provides guidance and feedback to strengthen student reading success.

Explicit instruction on morphology (word parts) and word families build vocabulary and move beginning readers toward more automatic word reading and fluency.

As with any skill, practice – along with with guidance and feedback – improves beginning reading. Give access to books and reading materials as much as possible at school and at home. In addition, supporting a child’s intrinsic motivation by giving them fun and interesting materials is more likely to result in reading improvements than are extrinsic rewards or incentives.

The more children want to read and view reading as enjoyable, the quicker their reading skills will grow and develop as competent beginning readers.