Here’s how you help kids crack the reading code

Summary: Learning letter-sound correspondences early provides the best possible basis to learning how to read.

Source: Norwegian University of Science and Technology

To help children learn to read earlier, one thing appears to be key: Learn the letters and sounds associated with the letters as early as possible. This may sound obvious, but another theory has suggested that children should first learn to read the letters in the context of words instead.

Charting each child’s letter-sound knowledge can be helpful in supporting them further in the learning process as they begin school, says Professor Hermundur Sigmundsson at NTNU’s Department of Psychology.

Sigmundsson, Greta Storm Ofteland, Trygve Solstad and Monika Haga collaborated on a recently published article in New Ideas in Psychology. Sigmundsson says the research team are among the first to clearly show the connection between learning the letters and sound correspondences and breaking the reading code.

“Since reading is the very foundation for acquiring other skills, it should be prioritized for the first few years of school,” says Professor Sigmundsson.

Clear link

The connection between literacy and literacy is clear, and a good indicator of literacy. On average, the children had to know 19 letters to crack the reading code or read.

But it’s not a given that you’ll be able to read even if you know your letters. Reading or writing single letters is something completely different from putting those letters together into words that make sense. The individual letter variations can be huge.

This shows two little boys reading
The connection between literacy and literacy is clear, and a good indicator of literacy. On average, the children had to know 19 letters to crack the reading code or read. The image is in the public domain.

Granted, the letters in Norwegian are pronounced quite consistently – especially compared to English – but they vary enough that children need time. The words “cough” or “light,” for example, aren’t necessarily pronounced the way you would think by just looking at the letters individually.

Children who have already cracked the reading code should have appropriate challenges to further develop their reading skills. These should be in the form of books that pique their interest. At the same time, youngsters who still haven’t cracked the code should learn enough letters and letter sounds to start practicing putting words together.

Read to kids early – practice makes perfect

The research team studied 356 children aged 5 to 6 years for one year. Eleven percent of the children could already read when they started school. By the end of the first school year, 27 percent had not yet learned to read. Most of this group were boys, who also knew fewer letters when they started school.

“If you take out the 5 to 10 percent who have dyslexia, the numbers could indicate that around one in five children gets too little practice or lacks motivation in their first school year,” Sigmundsson says.

Girls are better at reading than boys from the outset. This difference continues throughout school, but it’s important to remember that this is an average and that parents of both boys and girls can do things to help their children.

Previous research from NTNU and elsewhere shows that you need to practice exactly what you want to be good at. Therefore, it is important that children are encouraged to become independent readers early. Parents should read to children to arouse their interest whenever possible.

What you read hardly matters, as long as the child finds it time well spent. As a bonus, children and parents enjoy a cozy time together.

About this neuroscience research article

Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Media Contacts:
Hermundur Sigmundsson – Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access
“Breaking the reading code: Letter knowledge when children break the reading code the first year in school”. Hermundur Sigmundsson, Monika Haga, Greta Storm Ofteland, Trygve Solstad.
New Ideas in Psychology doi:10.1016/j.newideapsych.2019.100756.


Breaking the reading code: Letter knowledge when children break the reading code the first year in school

The aim of this study was to examine when children learn to read and how learning to read depends on a foundation of alphabetic knowledge. 356 children aged 5–6 years completed assessments of letter-sound knowledge, i.e. the names and sounds of uppercase and lowercase letters of the Norwegian alphabet. Each child was tested at the start, the middle and the end of the school year. The time that each child broke the reading code was also recorded. The results indicated that 11% of the children knew how to read before starting school and 27% of the children did not learn to read by the end of the first year. The remaining children typically knew 21 uppercase letter sounds before they were first able to read, and only a few (<5%) knew less than 11 uppercase letter sounds when they broke the reading code. The average of all four letter-scores at the time they broke the reading code was 19 ± 5 letters (mean ± standard deviation). Although letter sound knowledge was associated with the ability to read, it was not sufficient for breaking the reading code. 40% of children who knew 23 letter sounds or more, enough to read more than 80% of the most common Norwegian words, and 15% of children who knew all 29 letter sounds still could not read. Based on these data, it seems reasonable to advocate learning letter-sound correspondences early in the first year of school to form the best possible basis for breaking the reading code.

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