How do Children Learn to Read and Spell?

Many children living with Aspergers and Autism struggle with reading.  In today’s blog, Dr Lillian Fawcett helps us to understand why many children struggle with reading and I invite you to visit her website for more information on the products that she has.


When your child is having difficulty with reading and spelling it is difficult to know which of the myriad of programs that are available would be the most beneficial.  To help make this decision, I believe it is worthwhile looking at the research and using this as the starting point. 

The first question you need to ask is, “How do children learn to read and spell?”  According to Frith’s (as cited in Heath, Hogben & Tan, 2008) literacy acquisition model children start to read and spell using logographic strategies whereby they focus on the visual features of a word and whole words are memorised.  The problem with this strategy is that you can only read and spell words which you have already seen before and remembered.  Unfortunately, a lot of the strategies currently used in schools focus exclusively on logographic strategies.  For example, look-cover-write-check and learning to memorise a list of word rely purely on a child’s visual short-term memory.

The second phase of Frith’s model is the alphabetic phase.  This phase has two components.  The first is developing good phonological awareness and auditory processing skills. This involves identifying and manipulating the sounds in speech.  Children that have good phonological awareness and auditory processing skills can break words into the separate sound components, identify and produce rhyming words, blend individual sounds into meaningful words and substitute one sound for another to make a new word (e.g., changing the /m/ in ‘mat’ to /r/ to make ‘rat’).

There is a long history of research showing that children’s phonological knowledge in pre-primary is a very good indicator of their future success in learning to read and spell accurately. Even the most current research continues to show the importance of phonological awareness.  In McNamara, Scissons and Gutknecth’s (2011) longitudinal study of 382 kindergarten children, it was found that children who were identified as having poor phonological awareness in kindergarten had the lowest scores in a range of reading achievement tests in Year 1, 2 and 3.  Furthermore, each year these struggling readers fell further behind their peers.

So clearly, we need to specifically be teaching our struggling readers phonological awareness.  And probably even more importantly, we need to be assessing for phonological awareness in kindergarten and putting programs in place in kindergarten to help those students who score poorly on these tests.

The next component in the alphabetic phase is to learn the alphabetic code.  This requires children firstly to realise that the written language is a code for the spoken language.  So when we spell, we are encoding, writing down the code and when we are reading we are decoding, deciphering the code.  Children then need to learn all the ways in which the sounds in English are represented in writing and the multiple ways in which letters and letter combinations can be read.  Previous research has found that around a third of all students need specific, systematic instruction in phonics in order to become proficient readers and spellers. 

Again, this finding continues to be supported by current research.  For example, in Ryder, Tunmer and Greaney’s (2008) experimental study involving 6 and 7 year old children with reading difficulties, they found that the children who were given explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonemically based decoding skills outperformed those children who did not received this type of support on a whole range of reading achievement measures, including reading accuracy and comprehension.  But what I think is even more significant about Ryder et al.’s research is that a two-year follow-up assessment indicated that the positive effects of the intervention had been maintained.

One of the areas of research that I find particularly interesting is research using MRI scans (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) which looks at brain functioning during the reading process. An MRI scan identifies the parts of the brain being used by observing the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the working brain cells.  Compared to a competent reader, people who have dyslexia or reading difficulties show significantly less brain activation overall and no activation at all in the left hemisphere of the brain (which is the part of the brain associated with phonological manipulation) when reading.  However, there is a substantial amount of research which shows that explicit teaching in phonics not only leads to improvements in reading, but also leads to a significant increase in brain activation in the left hemisphere during the reading process (e.g., see Eden et al.’s 2004 and Odegard et al.’s 2008 research).  

The third phase of Frith’s literacy acquisition model is the acquisition of orthographic knowledge. To become competent in the orthographic stage, students need to learn and use spelling rules and have an efficient memory for the ‘exception words’. They need to learn the meanings of root words which are often of Greek or Latin origin, plus they need to learn how a range of prefixes and suffixes either add meaning or change the meaning of a word.  The importance of this kind of knowledge is supported by a study of university students by Holmes and Quinn (2009) in which they found that poor spellers were not particularly good at identifying or utilising orthographic knowledge.

In addition, good orthographic knowledge requires an understanding of syllabification.  In Diliberto et al.’s (2008) study, 83 middle-school students with reading difficulties were randomly placed into either a control group or a treatment group.  The treatment group received instructions in syllabification and students practiced the associated skills by decoding and encoding nonsense and rarely used words.  Students in the treatment group made significant greater improvements in their reading accuracy and comprehension compared to the control group who continued with their usual reading program. The theory behind using nonsense words during instruction is that it forces readers to rely on English spelling generalizations, rather than memorisation, to read the words, so they actually have to apply the skills that are being learned.

So, the underlying message is that if your child is struggling with reading or spelling, you need to be looking at a program that incorporates phonological awareness activities, explicitly teaches phonics and also teaches orthographic knowledge that is appropriate for the child’s stage of learning.


Dr Lillian FawcettDr Lillian Fawcett has over 20 years experience in education, is an accredited Dyslexia-SPELD specialist teacher, and has additional qualifications in psychology. She has developed a range of spelling and reading program based on well-research reading acquisition and memory retention principles which has enable to her, and a growing number of teachers using her programs, to successfully help hundreds of students improve their literacy skills.

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