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Different Approaches To Teaching Reading

Holkham Hall - the rooms inside The Libraries - book shelves (Photo
credit: ell brown)

by Hannah


Identifying the most effective way of teaching reading to young children has been the subject of
The two most popular methods have been the 'phonics' approach and the 'whole language'
approach. These two methodologies approach teaching reading in very different ways, which has led
their proponents to attack each other's approach as misguided or even detrimental to a child's
But what are the characteristics of each approach and how do they aim to build the reading skills of
young learners? Furthermore, is it really possible to argue that one is better than the other? Here's


The phonics approach tries to create an association in the child's mind between the 'graphemes'
(written symbols) and 'phonemes' (sounds) of language. Through the use of repetitious exercises to
drill this link between text and sound, teachers aim to build a familiarity and comfort with the basic
Once the child has achieved this proficiency, teachers then encourage them to blend the individual
written elements together to produce whole words; this is known as the 'synthetic approach'. As
such, synthetic phonics is described as a bottom-up approach which builds towards comprehension
Advocates of synthetic phonics claim that an emphasis on the child's ability to 'decode' written texts
is essential for creating a foundation on which an understanding of meaning can be constructed.
Its detractors, on the other hand, decry the rigour and repetition of phonics, arguing that children are
often bored and disengaged by the slavish focus on rules and individual sound-text associations.
The discipline required for this approach gives it a traditionalist, back-to-basics quality that has a



The whole language approach focuses on comprehension from the outset, with children being given
continuous texts to read in order to build an understanding of vocabulary and meaning. These texts
will be short, often with words being repeated to help develop familiarity with certain key terms and
A teacher will initially read with the children, but will gradually say less to encourage more
independence on the part of the young learners. Placing trust in children's ability to build
associations between words and draw conclusions from the text, whole-language teaching has been
identified as a top-down approach which places less emphasis on the rules and minutiae of
Those in favour of whole-language teaching praise its student-led approach, arguing that it is both
more engaging and more meaningful for young learners. Critics claim that such an approach places
a strain on teachers and that it lacks the structure and clear objectives of the phonics method.



With the differences between advocates of the two approaches at times appearing intractable, some
have argued that a mix of the two methods is most appropriate, allowing teachers to combine the
best of both worlds. This may be true, although it could be argued that a divided focus on bottom-up
Whatever the solution, it's generally agreed that different children have different preferences when it
comes to learning to read, so teachers would be well-advised to monitor to which methods children
Hannah McCarthy works for Education City, a leading supplier of e-Learning software for schools in
the UK. Education City offers comprehensive curriculum-based resources for teachers, including a
range of literacy activities and a new Learn English module for teaching English as an additional


Phonics approach most soundly supported by

research for effective instruction
in beginning reading

Must be explicitly taught

Must be systematically organized and


Must include learning how to blend sounds


Multi-Sensory Approach effective for special needs

Uses all possible senses tracing, saying,

listening, looking

Typically called VAKT

Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, Tactile

Can be used with either Phonics or Whole


Linguistic Method supported only by "qualitative

instead of quantitative research

Teaches "whole words" in word families

Students are not explicitly taught that there is a

relationship between letters and sounds for most

Language Experience called "Whole Language"

Expects child to learn reading as "naturally" as


Uses childs oral language as content for reading

Uses childs oral language as basis for spelling


Children learn to "read" by reading and rereading "big books" together with the teacher
and then the teacher gradually withdraws
prompts so child appears to be reading that

Reading Comprehension Support

Explicitly teaches strategies and techniques for

studying texts and acquiring meaning

Approaches to teaching reading

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Home Tutors Top Tips Teaching reading Approaches to teaching reading

All good literacy practice starts with the needs of the individual student. The
materials you use are crucial for addressing the specific needs of the student
and for maintaining motivation and interest. It is sometimes difficult for new
tutors to grasp that there is no curriculum to follow. The language
experience approach or 'Cloze' procedure discussed in this section
demonstrate what effective materials might look like.

1. The Language Experience Approach

The language experience approach uses a students own language and
grammar to create reading materials. In simple terms, they tell you a story
and you write it down for them to read.

What are the advantages of using language experience?


It is based on the students own vocabulary.

It involves the student and gives them a sense of ownership of the material.

It provides instant reading material for beginner readers.

It can provide a bank of essential sight words.

It can encourage writing activities.

How do you generate the text?


Use open-ended questions to generate discussion with your student.

Write down verbatim a few sentences which have been dictated by the

Do not change grammar or syntax, but clarify with the student that you have
written down what they intended to say.

How can you use the text?


Discuss the piece with your student and show an interest in the text.

Read the piece to the student and then read the piece together.

Point out unusual words.

Cut out the first sentence and ask the student to read it.

When the student seems confident reading the sentence, cut it up into
individual words.

Mix the words up and see if the student can put them together to form the

Repeat this exercise with the other sentences.

You can also ask the student to create new sentences with the cut up words
and to read them aloud.

2. Cloze Procedure
Cloze procedure is a method which encourages learners to develop and rely
upon their own ability to predict meaning in what they are reading, through
the use of context clues and their own previous knowledge.

The method involves deleting certain words or letters from a text and leaving
an underlined blank space. Learners can then read the passage to
themselves, guessing at the missing words or letters and filling in the
blanks. It should be emphasized that there are no right or wrong answers
whatever makes sense when read back is okay.
It is important to avoid leaving too many blank spaces because the reader
may become frustrated by the break in the flow of their reading. About one
deletion for every ten words is the maximum recommended. Read
the Cloze passage yourself to check that it isnt too difficult and that not too
much meaning has been lost through deletion.
The Cloze method can be used for a number of different purposes:
To assess comprehension. Using Cloze procedure gives a good idea of the

readers potential for understanding a passage. Clozecan test:

- word recognition
- the use of semantic and syntactical information to predict
- ability to seek meaning outside the context of the immediate sentence
To develop prediction skills for reading. It is best to eliminate words central to

the meaning of the passage, so that an appropriate word should spring easily to
To emphasize grammatical points. In this case it is best to leave out only

those words that are the same part of speech (e.g. adjectives, adverbs, prepositions

To highlight spelling patterns. As with grammatical points, you can eliminate

words that begin or end with the same letter combinations, vowel sounds or
rhyming patterns.

This introduction to reading skills is best discussed and worked through with two or
three colleagues. It aims to generate discussion on the key issues in reading we need
to consider as well as giving readers the opportunity to pick one another's activity
closets for those real gems we all have tucked away.



Reading is an active skill which involves inferencing, guessing, predicting etc. It also
has, more often than not, a communicative function. We rarely answer questions after
reading a text except in a language class, but we do write answers to letters, follow
directions, choose restaurants and holidays, solve problems and compare the
information to our previous knowledge or the knowledge of others.
Do you think your students are effective readers? Why?
Or are they ineffective readers? Why?
A familiarity with effective and ineffective reading strategies can help the teacher look
for effective reading behaviours in learners, encourage wider use of these strategies,
and be on the lookout for learners using less effective strategies. An effective reader is
one who can select the correct strategy for the purpose and text. Studies have shown
that most effective readers:
discover the distinctive features in letters, words and meaning
try to identify meaning rather than letters or words
use their knowledge of the world
eliminate unlikely alternatives through inference and prediction
have a clearly defined purpose
locate topic sentences
distinguish main points from subordinate ones, and fact from opinion
are aware of cohesion and reference
are aware of explicit and implied relationships between sentences and paragraphs
are aware of the importance of argument, tone and function
are able to work out the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary from context
have confidence in their own ability and take chances
Which of the above do your students do well?
What activities do you use to develop these strategies?
On the other hand, ineffective reading is often caused by:
word-by-word reading

inappropriate translation
inaccurate linguistic analysis
paying attention to unfamiliar words which are not relevant to the purpose of reading
and therefore these students do not take chances.
Which of the above to you see in your classes?
How do you help your students overcome these tendencies?
Match the column on the left with the definition on the right and decide which are
most applicable to the above categories.

reading shorter texts to extract accurate detailed



quickly reading a text to get the gist of it


quickly going through a text to find a particular piece

of information


reading longer texts, usually for pleasure


Look at the following subskills, consider each at two different levels (e.g. advanced
and beginners) and then number the ten most important skills for each level.
* Recognising the script of a language.
* Deducing the meaning of unfamiliar lexical items.
* Understanding explicitly stated information.
* Understanding conceptual meaning.
* Understanding the communicative values of sentences and utterances.
* Understanding relations within the sentence.
* Understanding relations between sentences through grammatical and lexical
cohesive devices.
* Interpreting text by going outside it.
* Identifying main points in a discourse.
* Extracting salient points to summarise.
* Basic reference skills (contents, index, abbreviations, ordering).
* Skimming.
* Scanning.
* Transcoding written information to tabular or diagram form and vice versa.


One of the most influential models of reading in recent years has been the
Psycholinguistic Model described by Goodman and drawing heavily on top-down
processing. It is based on a consideration of schema theory which says that
comprehension depends on the activation of schemata. These are pictures or
frameworks of a situation which help us to understand the situation. In other words, as
soon as we begin to read, we form a schema triggered by the title, format, first
sentence etc. and based upon our previous knowledge. This schema will be reinforced,
adapted or discarded as we continue to read. This model has profound implications for
the process of reading. It is essentially a selective process which involves a minimal
sampling of the text. The confirmation of the schema chosen may render much of the
language redundant.
This process reflects the old models of reading as a simple process of decoding words
into thoughts. However, it accepts that words must first be recognised and, having
been decoded, the thoughts must then be remembered. It is an approach which works
from the parts to the whole, building up gradually in a process of growth.
This model states that readers begin with expectations and ideas about a text, based on
its title, format and style, before they begin to look for words that will substantiate or
refute these expectations. It is an approach which begins with a picture of the whole
and deals with the parts in terms of this.
Are your students primarily top down or bottom up processors?
Or is there a healthy mixture? Why? Why not?
Should we make students aware of their own reading processes? Why? Why not?
How can an awareness of the theories above help us as teachers?
There are basically three positions in the literature of today.
1. The Processing Problem - argues that L2 learners may be proficient in the language,
but they still have problems reading. Therefore, the core of the problem is the failure
to transfer reading strategies from the L1 to the L2.
2. The Language Problem - states that L2 reading is very different from L1 reading. It
argues that the L2 reader has problems with memory span, mistakes are likely to lead
to hesitation, and there is a possibility of L1 interference.
3. The Short Circuit Problem - aims to strike a balance between the first two and states
that L2 readers bring a great deal with them to help in the reading process, but it
concedes that the language problem is of fundamental importance. In other words,
good L1 readers are theoretically able to transfer their reading skills, but when
language competence is limited there is a short circuit. There is no conclusive

evidence for this theory as yet, but the idea is intuitively appealing. Readers, who do
not know enough of the language, cannot transfer skills from their L1 because they
need to be more proficient in the L2 to activate the skill.
What problems do you find your classes have?
What activities do you use to overcome these problems?
Share your favourite and most successful reading classes.
* to introduce and stimulate interest in the topic
* to motivate students by providing a reason for reading
* to provide language preparation for the text
* to clarify content and vocabulary of the text
* to help students understand the writer's purpose
* to help students understand the structure of the text
* to consolidate and reflect upon what has been read
* to relate the text to the students' own knowledge/interests/views
* to provide a stimulus for other language activities
Below you will see a number of possible stages for a reading lesson. These stages are
in a jumbled order. Please re-arrange the stages according to what you consider to be
an appropriate order. (Note that in any particular lesson some of these stages might be
omitted and/or other stages added.)
a Students ask the teacher about unfamiliar vocabulary.
b Students work very quickly in order to work out the answers to one or two general
c Students work out the meaning of selected words and expressions from the context.
d Students predict the content of the text from the title/picture/first line.
e The teacher draws attention to some of the grammar in the text.
f Students complete a detailed true/false exercise.
g Students locate topic sentences in some paragraphs.
h Students discuss topics related to the content of the text.
i Students scan the text to pick out proper names.
- Preview/Predict/Anticipate
- Scanning
- Skimming
- Comprehension Questions (e.g. "wh-" questions)

- Jigsaw Reading (jumbled and re-order)

- Information Transfer (e.g. draw diagram/graph/map/plan; complete a table)
- Directions / Instructions (e.g. follow directions, complete a task, arrange something)
- Cloze
- Disappearing Lexis
- C-Test
- Reference Identification (pronouns, anaphoric, cataphoric)
- Inference
- Write Headlines
- Write/Complete Summaries
- Make/Complete Notes (e.g. tree diagrams, mind maps)
- Integrated Skills activities (e.g. oral summary, paraphrase text, re-write in own
We should decide if we are going to use narrow-angle texts or wide-angle texts before
we look for a specific passage. Narrow-angle texts are those which are drawn from the
student's specialist field. They are prepared, authentic and require intensive reading.
They tend to be highly motivating, good for vocabulary and integrate naturally with
other class work. Wide-angle texts, on the other hand, offer a greater range of choice
and flexibility. They are authentic, often require less preparation and can be used
effectively with extensive reading exercises. However, we need to know our students
well to choose appropriately. Studies have concluded that the teacher can encourage
effective reading through the careful selection of texts and setting of tasks. Panic can
be minimised through the use of concrete, realistic tasks and groupwork.
How do you select texts for your classes?
Which texts do you find work best?
Which texts do you find fall flat?
Are there any particular sources you find especially useful?
You could use the two lists below to jog your memory.
Tick the categories you feel apply to your students and number them in order of
importance. Add any further categories or examples you feel should be included.
* Novels, literary texts (e.g. essays, biographies etc.)
* Plays
* Poems
* Letters (postcards, telegrams, notes)
* Newspapers and magazines (different articles and features)
* Reports, technical and specialised articles, pamphlets etc.
* Handbooks, textbooks, guidebooks
* Recipes

* Adverts, brochures, catalogues

* Puzzles, problems, rules for games
* Instructions, directions (e.g. how to use ..), notices, warnings, rules and regulations,
signs, forms, tickets, price lists, menus
* Comic strips, cartoons
* Statistics, diagrams, charts, tables, maps
* Telephone directories, dictionaries, phrase books, food labels
Here is a summary of key questions we need to ask ourselves as teachers.
Why do people read?
What do people read?
Why do we teach reading?
Why do students need to read?
How do we read?
What skills do students need in order to read effectively?
What difficulties do students face when reading?
How do we teach reading?
This technique for teaching reading is based on a top-down processing model and
involves the following steps:
K for 'Knowledge of the World'. This means that before reading a passage students
should be given the chance to activate their background knowledge of the topic.
S for 'Survey'. Students should look through the passage to find out how long it is,
what charts, pictures, headings etc. it contains, and think about what they can learn
from it, how useful the information might be and how it relates to them and their
Q for 'Question'. Each heading is turned into a question.
R for 'Read'. Students read purposefully to answer the questions. They also underline
the main ideas and put a question mark beside any sentence they did not understand.
R for 'Recite'. After reading a paragraph, the student covers it and checks if the main
idea can be expressed in their own words. If not, it is marked with a question mark to
show rereading is necessary.
R for 'Review'. After finishing the passage, the student looks back at the markings and
reviews the main ideas noted. Any sections question marked are reread.
R for 'Reflect'. After reading the whole passage, the student reflects on how useful the
information will be, paying attention to the connection between the passage and the
student's own knowledge.

The different approaches to teaching reading:

Your pre-reader is showing the signs and the interest in learning to
read, so its time to start, right? There are two main approaches to
reading: phonics and sight word. There is also a third approach
which combines the two. I tend toward the third approach, with a
little more emphasis on the phonics. First, lets take a brief look at

What is a Phonics Approach to Reading?

A phonics approach teaches the relationships between the letters
(graphemes) and their sounds (phonemes) so that a child may
decode words and sound them out piece by piece. Phonics may be
taught systematically (teaching sets of phonemes as groups before
beginning reading instruction) or analytically (analyzing the words in
a text, looking for familiar phonemes and learning new ones as you
go.) Some phonics approaches are very intensive, others are not. A
phonics approach gives a child the ability to sound out new words
with the building blocks they have already learned.

What is a Sight (or Whole Word) Approach to

A whole word approach to reading teaches kids to recognize whole
words by sight, beginning with high frequency words and moving on
from there. A whole word approach does allow young kids to learn a
great deal of words very quickly, but can hinder a childs ability to
decode new words on their own.

Taking a balanced approach to teaching

Some people, like myself, like to use a combination of these two
approaches. As adults, we recognize words by sight, we only sound
out words when we come across new words we have never seen
before. This is, of course, our ultimate goal in reading to develop
successful readers who can read fluently and have the tools to
decode new words with ease. You will probably find a great deal of
variety among those who choose to blend these two approaches
together. I prefer a strong phonics foundation but not an intensive
one. I dont prevent my children from recognizing and reading words
by sight, I encourage it.
With each of my children I took an approach that went
something like this:

Learn the alphabet and their sounds

Practice sounding out simple words (with the use of word


Adding blends (bl, fr, etc.) and diagraphs (ch, sh, th, etc.)

Practice reading simple sentences

Reading with simple readers, learning new words, sight words,

new phonemes as we encountered them.

Advancing to leveled readers and then short skill level texts.

How to teach phonics:

The thought of teaching phonics can be daunting to some. Honestly,
when I think about an intensive phonics approach it is a bit daunting
for me, too!! I take a laid back approach to phonics, that is, we learn

them and then we use them. We dont memorize, write and recite all
the rules and so on. When you teach your child the different
sounds the letters of the alphabet stand for, youre already on the
road to teaching phonics!
Because I like to take a multi-sensory approach to teaching and
because I like to consider my childs learning style as well, I use a
variety of methods and tools to teach phonics. We use flash cards,
rhyme games, fill in the missing letter type worksheets, computer
games and other games. (For example, phonemes or simple words
written on note cards can placed on the floor and then hopped onto
when the teacher calls it out.) Be creative! And have fun with it.

Consonants The sounds of the consonants, dont forget the

hard and soft c and the hard and soft g.

Vowels long sounds, short sounds, diphthongs (like ow and

oy. and all the other vowel combinations

Consonant blends where two vowels work together to make a

sound but you can still hear both sounds (like br.)

Consonant digraphs where consonants (and maybe some

vowels) work together to make a new sound (like ti says sh.)

This is not exhaustive, there are other phonemes you will encounter
as you begin reading (like the sc in science says s instead of sk
and igh which makes a long i sound!)
Those Pesky Sight Words!
Even if you like a strong phonics approach, there are some words
you just HAVE to remember and recognize by sight. Words like

one, said, and are. Also words that we dont say the way they
are spelled (come is not pronounced like comb.) Making lists of
irregular sight words, playing games with them and practicing
reading them can help.

Sitting down to read Putting the pieces

As we started learning the building blocks we started putting them
together in practice. Sitting down with a very simple reader, we
would begin to read. Though it may not look much like reading at
this point, I assure you, this is reading! I would have my child look at
the first word and try to say it, if they already knew it, or correctly
decoded it, we would keep going. If they sounded unsure or if they
were very close, I would help them sound it out and then pronounce
it for them correctly and have them repeat it. If they guessed and
got it wrong or didnt know, we would break it apart into pieces and
decode it. Once we reached the end of the sentence we would go
back and read the sentence fluidly together.
And this is how it would go, plodding through carefully and
intentionally. As we continued the kids would begin to recognize
more words and begin making more guesses, sometimes correct
and sometimes not. In the beginning this frustrated me, until I
began to recognize this as the beginning of the transition from
sounding out words to simply knowing them. If they guessed
correctly I would let it go, but if they got it wrong I would tell them
they needed to sound it out and see if they got it right. Over time,
the accuracy rate goes up as well. When the error rate starts

increasing, its time to slow down and sound things out again. Before
you know it your child is really reading and it looks like it, too!
Tips for this phase of reading:

Take it at your childs pace! There are a lot of phonemes and

rules and exceptions to remember!


Make it fun, so they enjoy learning.


Appeal to your childs learning style. Consider hands on word

cards, verbal games, and things they would personally enjoy.


Praise success do whatever you can to build their confidence.

Knowing they *can* do this makes a big difference!


Include books and stories that appeal to their interests,

encouraging them to read.

When They Struggle

This is by far the hardest phase of learning to read. Before this, they
are basically matching and sorting, matching sounds with letters
and sorting by patterns. After this, they are practicing what they
have learned and expanding their reading vocabulary. But this phase
right here is the most difficult, making the transition from learning
the pieces to using them, and using them correctly. If your child isnt
ready, this stage will be exceptionally difficult as they struggle to
make the transition. If you hit this stage and your child is frustrated
and struggles to progress, they may need a bit longer to digest the
information or mature to readiness or develop confidence. You may
discover genuine difficulties at this point (such as dyslexia or a need
for glasses.) You may discover some definitive preferences and
needs your child has for learning (such as needing to walk or wiggle
to think or preferring to think aloud or in their head.) Regardless of
whatever obstacles you uncover, the best thing to do at this stage of

the reading process is to watch your child for cues. Your child, even
if he doesnt understand them, will give off clues to what he needs
to succeed at this point in his reading journey. While our children
work to decode the words on the page, we can observe and decode
our childrens signals and cues.