By Benjamin Campbell
Right now, the age we choose to introduce our children to formal education is being hotly debated. Some argue that we shouldn’t be teaching children to read or write until they’re at least seven years old, whereas children start formally learning reading and writing as young as four. But regardless of whether you fall on the Steiner-schooling side of the fence, or wholeheartedly believe toddlers should be learning to write their names before they start school, how should we teach children to read and write? Are some ways better than others?
What’s the right way to teach reading?
The most common way of teaching children to read is via the use of phonics. This report by the Department for Education explains that there is a substantial body of evidence that demonstrates that systematic synthetic phonics is the most effective method for teaching all children to read. And, it’s particularly helpful for five to seven year olds and those struggling with reading.
But why? Well, phonics teaches children to recognise the sounds that individual letters make. Children then learn how to identify the sounds that different letter combination form, and eventually, children can blend these sounds together to make a word. This is a very effective method of learning to read (rather than encouraging children to memorise words or guess them) as it enables children to accurately ‘decode’ the new words they see. If you’d like to help children get to grips with phonics at home, you can buy phonics materials from a supplier such as this one.
However, there are some words that can’t be easily decoded using phonics. For example, the word ‘friend’ doesn’t fit neatly into this method of sounding out individual letters, combinations of letters and amalgamating them into one sound. In fact, nor do very simple words such as ‘who’ or ‘was’. This is because the word either involves complicated sounds, or because the word in fact has its root in a language that isn’t English.
In this case, only part of the word will be sounded out using phonics, looking at the surrounding words around it to give context. Or, children may simply memorise ‘tricky’ words like these, or look at words that look very similar to give clues as to how it ought to be read.
What’s the right way to teach writing?
Writing, on the other hand, is a process that’s a little more creative and led by the child.
It all begins with ‘mark making’ and scribbling, making patterns and drawing shapes in a child’s early years before their motor skills have developed sufficiently to make controlled, smaller markings on a page.
The best way to lead a child on from this point is to encourage them to begin ‘mimicking’ written text. At two to three years old, children will begin to recognise that print is made up of repeated patterns. Even though children won’t know what these markings really mean, they will understand that it conveys a meaning. Finally, children can start ‘formally’ learning to write at this point by using handwriting books with line spacing and having proper instruction with a teacher to trace words, draw shapes and form letters. Unlike phonics, there’s no ‘definitive’ way of teaching children to write, but this process of gradual letter forming seems to be just as effective now as it always has been.