The quest for literacy (part one)

Q: Why Is Literacy So Important?

A: My Oxford Dictionary defines “literacy” simply as “the ability to read and write”. Beginning reading is the solid foundation on which almost all subsequent learning takes places. The goal of literacy is the top priority in any educational system and in any modern economic workforce, and usually the top priority for the homeschooling parent especially in the early years.

Society sets a high premium on a literate workforce. Consequently, the primary or basic goal of any educational system is to produce literate students for a capable workforce in society. From the cultural viewpoint, literacy is a cultural treasure: the lasting language we pass from one generation to the next.

Most parents do not fail to see the importance of reading and language fluency. Words allow our children to think, create ideas and reason. As infants move away from toddlerhood and learn new words to express their needs and intentions, the frustration and tantrums cease, so growing language and communication ability facilitates proper self-expression and self empowerment in our children. Reading is not the ultimate goal in itself. We read to learn. The sooner a child learns to read fluently, the sooner he or she is put on the path to independent learning.

Q: How Difficult Is It To Raise A Literate Child?

A: The facts: The English language has at least 550,000 words, but 90 per cent of spoken English uses fewer than 3,000 words and about 65 per cent of children’s books are made up of only 400 key words.

The implication of these facts are that if a child learns those first 400 words, and then the 3,000, he would be on route to attaining English fluency speechwise. Apart from the 3,000 main words, thousands of other words are derived from them using prefixes such as dis, mis, in, re and pre and suffixes such as ed, er, est, ing, able, ly, ment, and ful. Once children learn to use these structures, then they are able to unlock nearly all the secrets of the English language.

Research indicates that on average children have a speaking vocabulary of between 2,000 words, but where the parent provides a rich language environment (lots of readaloud books, enrichment games and language activities) children will have be able to speak at least 4,000 words fluently by age four. Adam Urbanski, President of the Teachers’ Association in Rochester New York, reports that the amount of time parents spend talking to their children and the quality of that dialogue is the number one predictor of school success.

More facts: All of the 550,000 words in English can be written with only 26 letters of the alphabet and pronounced with only 44 basic sounds. These sounds are carefully taught in all their different combinations in most of the phonics instruction programs and are best known as the 71 Orton-Phonograms.

However, the mechanics of learning to read in terms of brain function are apparently complex. The entire mechanics of the reading process involves these four steps for the brain. The brain must:

1.Translate a word into its phonological counterpart, (e.g., the word sat is translated into the individual phonemes (/s/, /a/, and /t/).

2.Remember the correct sequence of sounds.

3.Blend the sounds together.

4.Search his or her memory for a real word that matches the string of sounds (/s/, /a/, and /t/).

“The truth is that learning to read is anything but natural. In fact, it does not develop incidentally; it requires human intervention and context. While skillful readers look quite natural in their reading, the act of reading is complex and intentional; it requires bringing together a number of complex actions involving the eyes, the brain, and the psychology of the mind (e.g., motivation, interest, past experience) that do not occur naturally.” wrote Mary K. Fitzsimmons from “Beginning Reading”, URL: 
Q: How Do We Raise Literate Children?

1. Create an environment that encourages the love of books and words.

Babies can be read to from the start. “The best way to prepare the very young child for reading is to hold him in your lap and read aloud to him stories he likes over and over again.”… says the British Bullock Committee in Language For Life. In our home we turn off the TV when we have our meals. We choose to hold a family conversation instead. My son regards his pre-nap storytime/bedtime storyreading ritual as the most sacred thing in his little world.

Most research shows that the creation of a home environment that encourages reading and the efforts we make as parents are the paramount factors of literacy. Even where parents are not instructing in a mechanical or textbookish way, the learning by children that takes place from interacting naturally with parents in everyday situations is significant. That is the true sense in which parents teach whether we consciously “homeschool” or not.

“Parents and teachers make THE difference in whether children become readers. Readers don’t just know how to read; they choose to read. Children who grow up loving books usually grow to love reading. Research has shown that home literacy environment is more important in the language, literacy, and academic achievement of a child than the amount of income earned by members of a household.

The term, home literacy environment, refers to the existence of conditions that help children develop literacy. These conditions include:

— parents who read

— parents who write

–a home where there are many types of reading materials: newspaper, magazines, maps, manuals, dictionary, and lots of books, etc.

— children’s books (where they can reach them)

— routine visits to the library

— parents who read to their children

— paper, pencils, markers, and other writing materials where children can readily gain access to them

— an environment that respects and encourages the language and learning of the children

To sum it up, children who are surrounded by readers and reading materials are much more likely to become readers!”

Source article:

2. Help your child become aware of the sounds of the language, ie to build phonological awareness

Research by the National Reading Panel in the article “A Return to Scientific Reading” ( shows, to be able to read proficiently, children must acquire four essential skills :

1.Conscious awareness of the speech sounds in spoken words. This is called phonemic awareness;

2.Recognition that letters are used to represent speech sounds. This is called phonics information;

3. Capacity to read a text so as “to understand what is read.”*.

4. Ability to read silently and aloud with “speed, accuracy, and proper expression.” This is called reading fluency.

The acquisition of reading skills involves two important processes, one is acquiring phonological awareness and two, the acquisition of the verbal vocabulary necessary for reading comprehension to facilitate word recognition and reading fluency.

A parent can provide phonological awareness activities to create print awareness, enhance children’s familiarity with the written and spoken language (e.g., playing with words). These activities together in a literacy environment in which words, word games, rhyming, and story reading are plentiful, set the foundation for reading.

Here are some suggested “Principles For Learning To Read” from the ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education website at 

1. Create Appreciation of the Written Word and help their children feel that reading is something they would like to do / and of the many ways language is useful.

2. Develop Awareness of Printed Language in newspapers, mail, billboards, signs, and labels all around them (a basic sense of what print looks like and how it works) Teach children how to handle a book, which way to turn the pages, and that the printed words, not the pictures, tell the story when you read.

3. Develop early familiarity with letters of the alphabet the names of letters and to recognize and form their corresponding shapes. (Note: Most phonics programs with the exception of the Phono-Graphix method/Reading Reflex program, require children to have learnt the alphabet.)

4. Understand the Relation of Letters and Words (that printed words are made up of ordered strings of letters, read from left to right).

5. Understand That Language is Made of Words, Syllables, and Phonemes and that sentences are made up of strings of separate words. These are the building blocks of spoken language. A phoneme is the smallest functional unit of speech. The word “cat” contains three phonemes: the /k/, /a/, and /t/ sounds.

6. Learn Letter Sounds and understand that the logic of the alphabetic writing system is built on these letter-sound correspondences.

7. Children should be challenged to Sound Out, then blend New Words and then to use this knowledge to sound out new words in reading and writing.

8. Identify Words in Print Accurately and Easily – then practice reading and rereading of meaningful text made up of words the child has been taught to sound out.

9. Know Spelling Patterns.

10. Learn to Read Reflectively.

3. Help your child acquire reading skills through proper reading instruction programs.

According to the National Reading Panel “the teaching of beginning reading is of supreme importance and must be purposeful, strategic, and grounded in the methods proven effective by research.” (

To understand the mechanics of phonological reading instruction from see the Riggs’ Institute “Phonetics – Spelling – Whole Language: How We Put Them Together for the Best of Both Worlds” See

Tips from the article “Beginning Reading” (The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education) at URL:  

1.Make phonological awareness instruction explicit. Use known conspicuous strategies and teach / model phonemes specific sounds for student and asking students to reproduce the sounds.

2.Ease into the complexities of phonological awareness. Begin with easy words and progress to more difficult ones.

3.Provide support and assistance. The following research-based instructional sequence summarizes the kind of scaffolding beginning readers need:

(a) Model the sound or the strategy for making the sound.

(b) Have students use the strategy to produce the sound.

(c) Repeat steps (a) and (b) using several sounds for each type and level of difficulty.

(d) Prompt students to use the strategy during guided practice.

(e) Use steps (a) through (d) to introduce more difficult examples.

4.Develop a sequence and schedule, tailored to each child’s needs, for opportunities to apply and develop facility with sounds. Give this schedule top priority.

Recommended reading: Online article “THE GOOD READER: TEACHING READING FROM BIRTH ON” by Jessie Wise excerpted from her book “The Well Trained Mind”at

For more tips on how to reading instruction for parents and teachers from the ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education, see these articles at

Further resources for developing fluent readers:

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