Emerging Reading and Word-Identification Skills

Most children in kindergarten cannot read and write, although clearly some can. Most children who cannot read have nonetheless developed many language and cognitive skills that form the foundation for learning to read and write. These children tend to come from families that have provided them with many rich, early experiences with literacy. Other children, often referred to as "at risk," have had fewer such experiences; these youngsters depend heavily on teachers and schools to help them become readers and writers.

A full discussion of emerging literacy skills would need to consider many topics. However, since the subject of this paper is word-identification instruction, it seems important to focus on two areas specifically related to success in that area: familiarity with print and phonemic awareness.

Familiarity with Print
Concepts of Print. Children who have had many experiences with language, especially the experience of having someone read to them regularly, may have some concept of what printed words and letters are. They may realize that the print on a page is the source of the text information needed for reading or know that a reader looks at print from left to right. These concepts, referred to as concepts of print, are important for success in learning to read (Adams, 1990), and children who have had limited preschool experiences with printed language will need to be taught them.

Teaching concepts of print should be approached systematically. After reading a favorite book, such as a Big Book version of Robert Kalan's Rain, what could be more natural than for a teacher to point to the title and ask how many words are in the title, and to contrast the number of words in that title with the number in Mary Serfozo's Who Said Red? As the teacher rereads the book, what would be more effective than to point to the words as he or she says them, moving from left to right across the page? Instruction in important concepts of print would be taking place but within the context of entertaining reading activities.

Letter Names. One of the strongest research findings in the field of reading is the high correlation between knowledge of letter names and success in learning to read (Adams, 1990; Adams & Pikulski, 1996; Durrell, 1980; Ehri 1983; Venezky, 1975). Young children need to develop the concept that printed words are composed of letters; they then can be taught letter names if they don't come to school knowing them. While teaching children letter names does not in itself result in success in learning to read (Jenkins, Bausell, & Jenkins, 1972), it can facilitate memory for the forms or shapes of letters and can serve as a mnemonic for letter-sound associations or phonics (Adams, 1990).

Most kindergarten children learn letter names without difficulty. Many teachers introduce letter names by teaching emerging readers to sing the alphabet song. Thus, children often learn the names first and then attach them to the letter forms. There is now a wide variety of high-quality alphabet books such as ABC and You (Fernandez, 1990) or Annie, Bea, and Chi Chi Dolores: A School Day Alphabet (Maurer, 1993).

While knowing letter names appears to facilitate the development of word-recognition skills, it would be inappropriate to delay introducing other literacy activities (language expansion, shared reading, beginning writing activities, and so on) to children who have not yet learned letter names.

Phonemic Awareness
Children in the beginning stages of learning to read need to learn that spoken words are composed of a limited number of identifiable, individual sounds or phonemes. This understanding, often referred to as phonemic awareness, is a very important factor in success in learning to read (Juel, 1988). Phonics involves building associations between written letters and speech phonemes. If a child has no concept of what a speech sound is, building these associations will be difficult, if not impossible. A growing body of research shows that phonemic awareness is not only the most powerful predictor of success in beginning reading, but also, for most children, a necessary prerequisite for learning to read (Bradley & Bryant, 1983, 1985; Juel & Leavell, 1988; Stanovich, 1993-1994; Tunmer, Herriman, & Nesdale, 1988). Fortunately, there is also a substantial body of research that suggests that emerging readers can be taught phonemic awareness skills and that learning such skills leads to significantly greater success in learning to read (for example, Ball & Blachman, 1991; Bradley & Bryant, 1983; Lundberg, Frost, & Petersen, 1988). Griffith and Olsen (1992) and Yopp (1992, 1995) offer helpful suggestions and activities for developing phomenic awareness.

Adams (1990) suggests rhyming activities for initiating phonemic awareness. The reading and rereading of books with clear, simple rhymes, such as Nancy Shaw's Sheep in a Jeep, offer abundant and fun opportunities for direct instruction in rhyming and the beginnings of phonemic awareness. The very title of the book Whistle for Willie (Keats, 1964) draws attention to beginning sounds that can be further developed through instruction.

Research also suggests that young children's awareness of onsets (the initial consonant of a word or syllable) and rimes (everything after the initial consonant in a one-syllable word or in syllables, traditionally referred to as phonograms or word families) is related to success in beginning reading (Goswami, 1988, 1990; Goswami & Bryant, 1994). Therefore, children should be taught to identify and manipulate these sound units.

Children in kindergarten should be introduced to common phonograms. In addition to building phonemic awareness, providing instruction with phonograms also prepares children for reading words by analogy. For example, a child who never saw the word rug in print but who knows initial consonant sounds and how to read the word bug can very likely identify the new word if he or she has had practice manipulating onsets and rimes.

Encouraging young children to engage in writing using temporary (also called invented) spelling is another excellent way to foster phonemic awareness. As children learn to use letters to represent words in writing, they naturally need to think about the sounds that compose the words. Mason, Herman, and Au (1991) and Griffith and Olson (1992) offer a fuller explanation of what phonemic awareness is, review evidence that it can be taught, and give suggestions of how such awareness can be taught through meaningful language activities.


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