Teaching Early Readers: Two Approaches

By Huntington Learning Center

If you’re an early elementary school teacher, you know that there are multiple ways to teach young readers. Here are two of the most common, and the differences between them (as described by Education Week):

Balanced literacy combines language instruction and language exploration and encourages student independence. In a balanced literacy classroom, teachers might use:

  • Word walls to organize words by initial letter sound and mix single-syllable, multi-syllable, regular, and irregular words.
  • Leveled reader books to introduce students to repeated words and predictable sentence structure. This helps students figure out unknown words through context and images.

With balanced literacy programs, students learn some phonics, but the emphasis is on getting students into books. Readers are taught to use cues to figure out words and whether words make sense in context. Using pictures, they are encouraged to guess words.

Phonics instruction involves helping students learn to identify written symbols (letters) and what those letters sound like, as well as the combinations of different letters. Teachers help students begin to understand the relationship between written symbols and their sounds. Teachers who teach phonics often use:

  • Sound walls to group words with similar sounds (e.g. words that contain the “ay” sound, like pay, gray, say, play; words that contain “at,” like cat, bat, that, fat).
  • Decodable books that have high-frequency words and sounds and repeat those sounds (e.g. sentences like He hit the ball on the wall and saw it fall).

With phonics instruction, the focus is on understanding the rules of sounds and sound patterns, and students are discouraged from using context to figure out words. Instead, readers practice letter patterns and learn rules (e.g. what long “a” vs. short “a” means) to help them figure out how words sound. This often involves breaking words into syllables and sounding things out.

What the Research Says

Most children do not intuitively connect printed letters on a page to written sounds and must be explicitly taught how to recognize that certain letters represent certain sounds. This tends to be a more successful long-term approach than when students are taught to remember whole words, even if it appears that children who connect print to meaning pick up reading faster.

While teaching reading may seem simple to parents, you know well that it is not. Research shows that effective reading instruction is orderly and rooted in systematic phonics instruction. The process dives into teaching letter and sound combinations and helping students master these combinations in sequence. Read more about the science behind how children learn to read.

If you have any students who are experiencing difficulties learning to reading, refer them to Huntington, where they will be in good hands. We’ll get to the bottom of any issues and develop a customized, one-on-one learning program to improve reading skills using our proven approach. Reading is the foundation upon which all learning is built. Let Huntington help your students establish solid reading ability that will carry them through school and life.


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