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Reading and child development: Research findings: Putting it together: Letters, sounds and words

Updated Saturday, 19th February 2011

The next challenge for children learning to read is to negotiate the relationship between letters and sounds.

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If children can identify the letters of the alphabet and the sounds in a language their next challenge is learning the relation between letters and sounds. Languages differ according to how close a correspondence there is between letters and sounds. Languages such as English are often termed opaque languages as it is often difficult to work out the sound of a word from the way it is spelt (think about the different ways of saying ‘c’ in ‘cat’ and in ‘chat’).

In contrast, other languages, such as Turkish and German, are termed transparent languages because the spelling of words always closely corresponds to the sound used in a word.

German 'Warning: fierce dog' sign Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Kaarsten |

Although it is difficult to make comparisons between languages that are not confounded by other variables (such as the way reading is taught), a number of findings indicate that it is easier to learn to read in transparent systems. For example, Hans Wimmer and Usher Goswami compared English and German children.

They found that there were similarities in the speed and accuracy of reading numerals (1, 2, 3 etc.), and number words (one, two, three etc.) but English children were slower and more inaccurate in reading non-words (i.e. words made up by the experimenters).

When we read, we usually convert the letters we see into a word that we have in our vocabulary. For children this can be a difficult task, because when they are sounding out words they have to put the sounds together and then try to work out the appropriate word.

With experience and with the increasing ability to chunk relevant letters together, this becomes an easier task until eventually printed words can be read as a whole.

Traditionally, our vocabulary is thought to contain details about the sound of a word, meaning and grammatical properties, and it is supposed we access our vocabulary knowledge when reading. However, we can also read the following: ‘One day the mib fell in the feg’, which contains words that we have never heard before. Observations such as this provided a basis for the suggestion that reading involving two routes.

Usually, the process involves identifying a word that we already know, but if this does not work then we are able to make a very good guess at how the word should sound, and obviously this is easier to do in transparent languages.

Given the importance of children having the words they read in their vocabulary it is not surprising that children with larger vocabularies are often better at reading.

Again we see that reading is a complex activity that brings together different aspects of children’s thinking and learning skills. It also is apparent that the skills that children bring to the task will affect the progress they make at reading, and even the language they are learning can affect this progress.


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