May 13, 1997
by John Weinacker
[Editor's note: The following is the eighth part of a series on early childhood development ideas and practices.]
If you're like most parents you've at some point picked up your four or five year old from pre-school to find him very excited about the picture he drew and the story he wrote about it. When you tried to read what he had written you might have found something like "I yNt Tu hTe prk ND so The Dox." Thinking for a moment, you may have asked him to read it to you. This way, you could help build his self-esteem while at the same time understand what he was exactly intending.
When we teach children to read and write we (educators and parents) often do so by first teaching them the names of the letters. While this is quite nice for familiarizing a child with the letter names it can also prove to be a hindrance later when the child is learning to read and write by sounding out words. Children do this naturally. They take sounds that they know and then either put them together in order to write or take them apart in order to read. We know this "natural" method of learning to read and write as phonics.
Children who learn the names of letters before they learn the sounds will more than likely use a letter name that begins with the sound of the letter sound that they intend. For example, a "y" may be used in place of a "w" because the letter name "y" starts with the sound "w" whereas the letter name "w" is pronounced "double u." Therefore, the sound that is most familiar to the sound "w" is the letter name "y."
As you can tell, all of this can be very confusing. Well, it needn't be. One way to help lessen the confusion for the child is to allow him to learn the sounds of letters, if not before at least while he is also learning the names of the letters. This phonetic-based approach to learning to read will enable him to more easily decode what someone else has written while also helping him more effectively communicate what he writes. Who knows, you may even find that eventually he becomes a pretty good speller.
Something else that may have occurred to you when looking at your child's picture: You may have noticed your child showing an interest in writing even before he shows an interest in reading. Although sometimes lacking in the fine- motor skills necessary to grasp a pencil and form a letter exactly, young children are generally more interested in expressing their own thoughts than in reading the thoughts of others. This is due to a child's developmentally natural focus on themselves at this age.
Capitalizing on this bit of knowledge, you may find some pre-formed letters and let your child trace them while saying the sound of the letter. This will allow him to learn the sounds while at the same time let him learn the shapes of the letters. With these new tools he will be on his way to writing and reading in virtually no time at all!
John Weinacker has a Masters degree in Early Childhood Education, and a Masters in Business Administration. He is the owner and administrator of the Weinacker's Montessori Schools in West Mobile, Tillman's Corner, and Bay Minette, Alabama.