ABC's, PHONICS, and BOOK CONVENTIONS
"Identification of predictors of children's eventual success in learning to read has been an active area of research. Three powerful predictors are (1) preschooler's ability to recognize and name letters of the alphabet, (2) their general knowledge about text (where is the front or back of the book, whether the story is told by the pictures or the print, and which way to turn the pages of a book), and (3) their awareness of phonemes (the speech sounds that correspond roughly to individual letters)." – Marilyn Jager Adams (Beginning Reading Instruction in the United States – ERIC, 1990)
The three most fundamental concepts a youngster must be taught in order to become a pre-reader are: the alphabet, phonemic awareness, and book conventions. All three concepts are interdependent and form the basis for future reading instruction. If great care is taken in presenting these concepts to little ones, the percentage of those that experience reading difficulties at a later age will drop dramatically.
If this process is done correctly, then intense instruction of the alphabet and book conventions is not even necessary! Parents who regularly read to their toddlers and preschoolers, sing and point to the alphabet, and notice environmental print with their youngsters have already taught them those skills. The key is to start early and make it a part of everyday life. This way, these predictors of reading success are learned naturally.
If alphabet games and book interactions are not a part of a toddler's or preschooler's routine, reading difficulties may or may not ensue. These concepts can be taught, but a lack of early literate experiences will mean that the child has to play catch-up with the others in his or her age group.
From as early as infancy, we begin singing the alphabet to our babies. We continue through the preschool years, increasing the frequency and expecting some learning and memorization to take place. Intrinsically we know that teaching the ABC's is an important part of our job as parents. But do we completely understand just how fundamentally significant this learning task is?
A young child's introduction to the alphabet is at first meaningless. To the child, the letters are a bunch of unrecognizable symbols, little doodle drawings, pencil marks, or just words in a song. As we continue reading stories with our children they begin to understand that we are drawing meaning from the book text, not just making the story up as we go. As our children observe us writing notes, lists or balancing the checkbook, they start to realize that we use the symbols to communicate also. Their recognition of our use of the alphabet to communicate motivates them to do the same. It is at this time that we need to do activities with our children that teach them the alphabet.
The natural extension of learning the alphabet is phonics: the relationship between letters and the sounds they produce. After children learn the sounds the individual letters make, their next step is to learn that certain letter combinations also make distinct sounds. They will regularly hear these sounds from daily reading experiences and, as inquisitive youngsters, ask questions about what they are seeing and hearing. Again, take advantage of their curiosity and answer them. It is never too early to provide a young child with information if he or she is asking for it.
Unlike the concepts of alphabet and book conventions, phonetic awareness needs to be taught more specifically. Consonant and vowel combinations—and the sounds they produce—are more challenging to master. There are an overwhelming number of letter combinations and often those combinations produce unlikely sounds. Direct instruction, practice, and time are all needed to produce readers who can successfully navigate all of the phonetic possibilities!
Book conventions, or the principles of book formatting and English language print, universally follow the same format. Print is written and read from left to right, reading and writing moves from the top of the page to the bottom. We begin reading at the beginning of the book and move through page-by-page to the end. The majority of stories contain a title page, a dedication page, and story pages all enclosed within a cover. Sometimes the illustrations convey the meaning of the story, and other times the text does. Independent readers do not even think about these conventions. However, children who do not yet read or who are learning to read will need a demonstration of these very basic rules. It's important to use physical paper books at this stage rather than e-books, which will not provide children the ability to handle the book in a tactile manner.