Whether you’re a religious person or not, the gospel according to St Matthew is a veritable treasure trove of useful stories and proverbs that provide useful analogies to the process of learning to read. Keith Stanovich was inspired by Matthew Chapter 25, v 20 to call one of his most quoted papers on the science of reading ‘Matthew Effects in Reading’. The verse reads: ‘For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath’. And, as a broad generalisation, in terms of learning to read, it means that skilled readers find reading easy, they read more, and in the process ‘much vocabulary growth takes place through the context of reading itself’ (Stanovich, K.E., p.163). Furthermore, the skilled reader acquires from reading much general and domain-specific knowledge and becomes familiar with the syntactic structures within which texts are framed.
But there’s another text in Matthew that is especially germane to the subject of learning to read and write: Matthew Chapter 7 vv 24-27. In this parable, given in the Sermon on the Mount, we are asked to consider two builders, one who ‘built his house upon a rock’ and one on sand. Predictably, when the rain came and the wind blew, the first builder’s house, being founded on rock, withstood the storm. The second builder, a foolish man, who had ‘built his house upon the sand’, saw his house collapse.
I want to draw on this latter story as an analogy for teaching children to read and write successfully from the start, for it is in the very first steps of teaching children to read and spell that we lay down a foundation so vital for the complexities of the tasks to come.
So, what are these first steps and how should they proceed?
Probably the most important principle to bear in mind is to keep cognitive load, or the amount of knowledge being taught at any one time, to a minimum. If you are a Reception/Kindie/Prep teacher and you have a class of children walking into your classroom for the first time, after settling them in, you can begin to teach them to read immediately: start as you mean to go on. On the first day, begin with just one word and teach it in exactly the way described step-by-step here.
You can see from this linked description of a word building lesson that we are teaching children to segment and blend and we are teaching them to write the way we spell the three sounds introduced. Our expectation is that once familiar with the game, all children can identify the sounds they hear in the word and, with practice, can link sounds to spellings: writing words helps them to remember the connection between sounds and spellings – even if writing is a little harder for some children.
Of course, as yet, we are not claiming that all children will have learnt the information we are teaching. For those with prior learning, the game will be easier to pick up; for those with no prior learning, it takes more time and more practice.
To further help embed the knowledge we are teaching into long-term memory, after teaching word building ‘mat’ in the morning, in the same afternoon, you can write ‘mat’ on a whiteboard and ask someone if they can read it. When a class member does, you’ll get everyone to say the sounds and read the word. Then, you can go round the class and ask four or five children to do the same. This will give you an idea of how much prior knowledge the children have arrived in school with and give everyone another opportunity to strengthen the links between sounds and spellings.
On the following day or on the day after that, you might word build ‘sat’, thus adding another sound-spelling correspondence (SSC) to the three already introduced (I didn’t say learnt! Yet! Because if it’s not in long-term memory, it hasn’t been learnt.). Now, the children have been working with < m > < a > < t > and < s > for /m/ /a/ /t/ and /s/, respectively.
Ove the next few days, you can add < i > for /i/ and you’ll have five SSCs, with which you can spend the first two weeks, doing word building, reading and writing until children can link sound to print and print to sound faster and more accurately.
Over the next three months, you can teach the remaining one-to-ones, building cumulatively and systematically on your first lessons and you can make plain that the sounds that come out of your mouth when you say words like ‘mat’, ‘sit’, ‘van’, and so on can all be represented by the squiggles we call spellings. You can also go on to teach < ff > < ll > < ss > and < zz > in three sound CVC words like ‘huff’, ‘mill’, ‘mess’ and ‘buzz’, and teach the children that we sometimes spell sounds with two letters.
Within the first two to three months, you will have taught enough code knowledge to enable young children to read and write hundreds of words; you will also have equipped them with the skills vital to developing proficient reading and writing later; and, you will have taught them the rudiments of conceptual understanding: we spell some sound with a single letter and others with two letters.
If you are a parent, a carer, or a teacher, you will find exactly how to teach the above in Sounds-Write’s free, online course ‘Help your child to read and write’. This is taught from a one-to-one perspective but it can easily be adapted to teach a whole class, as you can see from the link above. Included also are all the common errors you will need to know how to respond to. To date, over 7,600 people from 147 different countries have enrolled on the course and it has had an amazing 717 reviews, many of them saying how helpful it has been.
Which brings us back to our parable: the rock on which we build our children’s literacy has to provide a foundation deep and secure enough to equip them with the knowledge and understanding necessary to contend with the greater complexities they will shortly encounter.
*Stanovich, K.E., (2000), ‘Matthew Effects in Reading’, in Progress in Understanding Reading, The Guilford Press, London.