Part 4 – How literate people read

Close analysis of how literate adults do actually read new words is provided. Also covered is the importance of teaching children to develop the skill of blending until it is automatic.

Part 4: How literate people read

So let us remind ourselves how literate people do read unfamiliar words. Look at these examples and imagine they are the names of villages or towns. They are made-up words, so cannot be recognised from memory, but they can be read nonetheless. Give it a try and think about the process as you do:

  • Trabburley 
  • Doilegan
  • Snanetry 

The chances are that you started at the left of each word, converted the letters into sounds, blended them, and arrived at a pronunciation of the word. You probably read them as /traberlee/, /doilegan/ and /snaintree/ [demonstra-tion], using the sophisticated blending skills that literate adults acquire, usually long ago and at a young age. It is so automatic that we hardly realise how we are doing it.

Occasionally, there are some words that have more than one way of being pronounced, such as these two words: Rowbury and Sleading. Rowbury could be pronounced as either /r-oa-bree/ or /r-ow-bree/, and Sleading pro-nounced as /sl-e-ding/ or /sl-ea-ding/. With these words, we know that we have to ask which way they are pronounced.

There are also some words that are not pronounced as you would expect them to be, such as these two places: Cambridge and Greenwich. According to the usual rules of pronunciation, the first one should be said with a short /a/, especially as the bridge is over the River Cam. The chances are that we used to say it that way, but over time it has changed so that it is now pronounced with a long /ai/. This often happens with English words: the pronunciation changes, but not the spelling. As for Greenwich, tourists in London very sensibly asking for boat tickets to /greenwich/; it must be quite bewildering for them to be told that it is pronounced /grenij/. However, once people have been told what to say, it is easy to remember these odd pronunciations. The thing to remember is that the vast majority of words can be read without any guidance, and being able to read virtually any word is very empowering.

Good readers always try to work out new words by blending the letter sounds. They rarely need to ask others or guess at words, but poor readers do, especially if they have not been taught with strong synthetic phonics teaching. So, in order to make sure that all children become good readers, it is essential that they learn the main letter sounds (at least those covered in Steps 1 to 5) and know how to blend words using those letter sounds fluently [demonstration].

It is important that children do regular word blending and use decodable readers until they are so fluent and confident at blending that it is their automatic response when they come across a word they have never read before. Learning something until it is automatic generally means that you perform the action without being consciously aware of doing so. It is perhaps easier to understand when it is likened to learning to drive. Initially, the gears dominate our responses but after a while gear-changing starts to become automatic. Then, after more driving, we hardly think about the gears at all; the brain is doing it automatically. A skill that is learnt until it is automatic is not forgotten; a person could stop driving for many years but still know how to change the gears. Our aim is for all children to learn to decode automatically so that the skill is not forgotten.

When children are given non-decodable reading books before they have established this automatic blending response, they often start to lose faith in blending and prefer to memorise and guess the words.  After a while these children forget many of the letter sounds they learnt in the first place; they start relying on memory only and end up becoming very poor readers. This causes many serious reading problems and should be avoided at all costs.


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