American children begin school at age 5. In Kindergarten, kids learn (ideally) letter sounds. Then they string sounds together to blend words. For example, a Kindergartner might read met, fin and mom. Later, they learn the names of letters. To learn to spell, teachers often encourage kids to write words slowly while saying the sounds (ex. d-aaaaaa-d). These types of activities help kids learn that letters represent sounds, and that sounds can be segmented and strung back together.
All these Kindergarten activities are beneficial, especially for an English-speaking child. There are quite a lot of people who think American kids start school too early, noting how Swedish children begin school at age 7, and German children begin school at age 6. We point to the high literacy rates of these children and assume we’re doing something wrong—we too should enroll children at a later age.
English has an opaque code in comparison to Finnish, Swedish, Italian, German…etc.
However, these Swedish and German children do not need to learn to read English! They learn to read Swedish and German respectively. This means, we have to compare the alphabetic codes of Swedish and German to English. In this comparison, English has the most esoteric, complicated code system.
We have 44 phonemes, about 150 common sight words, 100 sight syllables, the confusing schwa, and a lot of exceptions to rules. In comparison, Swedish has a very strict sound-symbol correlation. Their writing system is highly regular, meaning (largely) once Swedish children learn the alphabet, they can read! Imagine if English-speaking children only had to master the 26 alphabet sounds and then they could read. That would be pretty easy to do. If this were the case, we too could start educating children at age 7.
In Germany, the case is similar. Yes, German has long words. However, their phonetic system is highly regular. Dehaene writes, “Finnish, German, Greek, Austrian, and Italian, whose spelling is transparent were already read accurately” [by first grade] (from Reading in the Brain, p. 231). Their spelling systems are more transparent than English and take less time to master.
It takes English-speaking children 3-4 years to learn the code. In comparison, Swedish children learn to read in a matter of months. If English were a transparent language, then we too could send our kids to school at age 7. However, English is opaque. There are a lot of patterns and exceptions to learn. If we did send English-speaking children to school at age 7, they would not be able to decode until age 11!
What about children who learn the code in a “eureka moment?”
There are a lot of children who appear to have a “eureka moment” in learning the code. These children seem to suddenly “get it” and they go from struggling to read to knowing how to decode nearly everything. Why does this happen? In his book Language at the Speed of Sight, Seidenberg highlights that these children do not have a “eureka moment.” No one does. Learning to read is hard. If the spelling system is opaque, learning to read takes a lot of time.
These children who appear to “get it” are engaging in statistical learning, often for years. In other words, a child may not know how to read /ea/ as in speak. The child encounters /ea/ 1,000 times and then deciphers implicitly (without direct instruction) that /ea/ says the long e sound as in speak. This requires a lot of exposure. Plus, the child canNOT have a learning disability. If the child is engaging in statistical learning, there is no “eureka moment.” There is only sifting through tons and tons of data until finally the child learns each sound unit.
There only appears to be a “eureka moment.” In other words, the child is learning to read in the diffuse mode. Their brain is working out the puzzle of the phonetic code, engaging in tons of text exposure, and they require a certain numerical amount of encounters with each phonetic unit. Once the child hits this number (which varies per child), she can read.
However, even these children, who do not have a reading disability, can benefit tremendously from direct instruction. Why are we expecting kids to just get it when we can tell them explicitly /ea/ says /ea/ as in speak? Why not hand them the code? This will allow kids to read earlier. They’ll learn that reading and spelling are not guesswork. Furthermore, they will not fall behind and experience a dip in confidence.
How does this translate to your student?
Feel confident when you teach your Kindergartner letter sounds. Your English-speaking child has a lot of phonetic units and sight words/chunks to learn. If you make sure your student learns letter sounds in Kindergarten, it’s more likely that she’ll stay on track.
Kids love to learn to read! They’re excited to break the code and enter the magical world of books. We do not need to wait until kids reach age 7. Our code does not allow for this lengthy waiting period.
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