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Reading methods evolve: How we teach children to read has changed drastically

For generations, educators have grappled with the most effective ways to unlock the world of literacy for children. This journey, marked by the evolution of reading methods, is a fascinating exploration of pedagogy and its impact on young minds.

The history of reading instruction is a testament to our ongoing quest to find the key that best fits the lock, allowing each child to enter the vast library of knowledge and stories. By examining how these methods have changed over time, we gain valuable insights into how we can continue to improve reading instruction and empower young learners.

How reading methods have changed over time

From A, B, C to decoding

Traditionally, the alphabet method reigned supreme in reading methods. Teachers drilled children on letter names and their order, assuming this rote memorisation would translate to reading fluency.

However, this approach often left students struggling to sound out words, hindering their comprehension and enjoyment of reading. While recognising letters is a foundational skill, it’s akin to knowing the parts of a car without understanding how to drive it.

This method failed to equip students with the tools to navigate the complexities of written language, leaving many frustrated and confused.

The rise of sight words

In response, the reading methods pendulum swung towards a focus on sight words. This approach emerged as a solution to the limitations of the alphabet method. Here, teachers prioritised memorising high-frequency words, allowing children to recognise them instantly.

While sight words are crucial building blocks for fluency, this method alone didn’t equip students with the skills to tackle unfamiliar words. Imagine encountering a new restaurant menu filled with only familiar dishes – you might be able to order something, but your exploration and vocabulary development would be restricted.

Similarly, relying solely on sight words limited students’ vocabulary development and hindered their ability to read new and complex texts.

The power of phonics

The pendulum then swung towards phonics, a cornerstone of many modern reading methods. This approach emphasised the relationship between letters and their sounds, empowering children to decode words by breaking them down into their component sounds.

Imagine being presented with a complex lock and a set of tools – phonics equips children with the tools (letter sounds) to break the code (written word) and unlock the meaning within.

Educators focus on areas such as:

  • Graphemes – digraphs heat and meet, trigraphs pair and edge, and words with 4 letters and one sound weigh and though
  • Rime – paid, raid and said
  • Rhyme – maid, trade and weighed
  • Long u sound – do, shoe, few, due, pool, soup, suit, prune, unit and through
  • Short e sound – egg, here, their, pair, share
  • Long a sound – aim, ape, weigh, day

This method proved highly successful in building foundational reading skills, allowing children to tackle unfamiliar words with confidence.

However, some critics argued that a strict focus on phonics could lead to robotic reading, neglecting fluency and comprehension.

They likened it to learning the notes on a piano without ever practising a melody – the technical skills are present, but the music is missing.

A balanced approach

Today, the most effective reading methods incorporate elements of all these approaches, creating a balanced literacy programme. This holistic approach acknowledges the importance of phonics for decoding, providing the foundation for sounding out unfamiliar words.

Sight words are still recognised for their role in fluency, allowing children to recognise high-frequency words instantly and navigate text with ease. However, balanced literacy goes beyond mechanics.

Exposure to rich literature, with its engaging narratives and diverse vocabulary, fosters comprehension and a love for reading. This is akin to mastering the technical aspects of playing an instrument while also appreciating the beauty and emotion of music.

By incorporating all these elements, balanced literacy programmes empower children to become not just skilled decoders, but also thoughtful readers who can navigate the written world with confidence and enjoyment.

Impact on literacy rates

Fortunately, global literacy rates have steadily improved over the past few decades. UNESCO reports that the global adult literacy rate reached 86.3% in 2016, a significant increase from 64.7% in 1980.

This rise can be partly attributed to the adoption of more comprehensive reading methods that cater to different learning styles. Balanced literacy programmes that combine phonics, sight words, and exposure to literature are equipping more children with the tools they need to become successful readers.

Recommendations for parents and teachers: Fostering a love of reading

Regardless of the specific reading method used in school, parents and teachers can play a vital role in fostering a love of reading. Here are some effective strategies:

Read often

Make reading a daily routine. Snuggle up for bedtime stories, visit libraries together, and encourage independent reading time. Let them see you reading for enjoyment as well.

Listen up

Read aloud to children, letting them hear the rhythm and flow of fluent reading. This exposes them to proper pronunciation, intonation, and storytelling techniques.

Let them choose

Allow children to select books that pique their interest, fostering a sense of ownership over their reading experience. Take them to the library and let them explore different genres and topics.

Bring it to life

Discuss the stories after reading, ask questions about the plot and characters, and engage in activities related to the book’s content. This helps build comprehension and solidify their understanding of the story. You can act out scenes, draw pictures of their favourite characters, or write your own ending together.

Make it a positive experience

Avoid turning reading into a chore. Focus on the joy of discovery and the adventures that await within the pages of a book. Celebrate their accomplishments and milestones in their reading journey.


The journey of reading methods reflects our ongoing quest to unlock the magic of literacy for all children. From the rote memorisation of the alphabet to the analytical approach of phonics, each method has offered valuable insights.

Today, the most effective programmes embrace a balanced approach, incorporating phonics, sight words, and exposure to rich literature. This holistic approach equips children with the tools to decode, comprehend, and ultimately, fall in love with reading.

However, the role of educators and caregivers extends beyond the specific reading methods employed in the classroom. By fostering a love of reading through shared experiences, discussions, and a celebration of their achievements, parents and teachers can empower children to become lifelong readers, forever enriched by the vast world of written language.

See also:

Phonological and phonemic awareness: Help a struggling reader with sounds

Alphabet: 7 simple things to know about letters and sounds

Vowels: A simple guide on syllables, digraphs, diphthongs, trigraphs, long, short and silent

Consonants – digraphs, trigraphs, hard, soft, blends, silent sounds

Spelling rules for ch, tch, ck, k, oi, oy, ou, ow, ie, ei

Decoding: Focus on 6 steps when sounding out words

Rimes: Why it’s crucial for children to unlock the secrets of language

2 Letter words: Why readers struggle with them

Affixes – rules for adding prefixes and suffixes

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