Reading Rockets: Launching Young Readers
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Reading Rockets: Launching Young Readers

Edward Kame'enui

Dr. Edward Kame'enui is director of the Institute for the Development of Educational Achievement at the University of Oregon.

Reading Rockets: Launching Young Readers
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An Interview With Edward Kame'enui

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We need to intervene early...
There's a myth, and probably a popular myth, that if kids start off slow they'll eventually catch up, and what we know from the research is that that's simply not the case. Kids who start off slow, their trajectory of learning and reading continues to flatten out. In fact, their performance decreases over time.

So, what we know is that we need to intervene early and we need to intervene because we don't have any time to waste. Time is precious. Kids face the tyranny of time. And in order to catch up, we have to be very strategic in what we do in the early years.
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Sounds and beginning reading...
One of the big ideas in beginning reading, and it's a big idea because it's very important, is that of phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is the awareness of the sound system, the awareness of speech. And speech is very elusive because when you speak you can't see the white spaces between words, so it's a very elusive system. It's not like beads on a string that you can track.

What we know is that speech really primes kids to prepare for the writing system. So the speech system — awareness of sounds, being able to pull sounds apart, put sounds back together again, and so on — is an important big idea in beginning reading.
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Adults take phonological awareness for granted...
Phonological awareness is a skill that we take for granted because it comes very easily to us. Speech does come naturally; reading and a writing system doesn't. But speech does come naturally. And as adults we take it for granted that we can speak and we can play with sounds.

But for kids who are not familiar with sounds, taking apart the individual sounds of words may be a very difficult challenge. And playing with those sounds may be also difficult in terms of blending sounds and segmenting sounds and so on. And the reason we want children to focus on phonological awareness is that it really sets the stage for beginning to take the speech system and moving it into the writing system and to mapping in onto the writing system.
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Phonological awareness and alphabetic understanding...
The reason phonological awareness is important is that it sets the stage for moving into the writing system. And what it does is it primes kids for sensitivity to the writing system. It allows kids to understand that there is a connection between speech and writing.

If you grow up in Hawaii, for example, you'll grow up speaking a kind of Creole, a pidgin. So if you say "bumbythebugilgonoverthere," you're saying speech sounds that are not represented in print. So you may think as you're growing up in an area of Kalehee in Hawaii that "bumby" is a word. "Bumby" is not a word. So, unless you understand that the speech system has to be articulated so they can be represented in the writing system you're going to grow up thinking "bumby" is a word when in fact "bumby" is really "by and by."

So, it's important for kids to understand that there is a relationship between the speech that we produce and the writing system that we're going to read. So, phonological awareness prepares kids for that writing system.

Another big idea is alphabetic understanding. Alphabetic understanding is understanding that when you take speech and you map it into the print you have to map it into an alphabet. So that when you say sounds the sounds can be represented in print. And that's alphabetic understanding. Understanding that the alphabet stands for letters and that sounds and letters correspond. They go together. And then when we read, we read in an alphabetic writing system and we read the sounds, we read words and we use those letters to produce sounds and to read words.

That's a very important part and it's a difficult part and it's a part that teachers tend to have a difficult time teaching because it has to be systematic, it has to be taught in a way that's very explicit so that we show kids, all kids, the relationship between the sounds they hear and the writing system. And showing them that relationship is very, very important.
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Early intervention for kids who struggle...
There are a number of groups that we identify when we talk about kids who are really struggling with the writing system, the alphabetic writing system, struggling in beginning reading. We call them diverse learners. We call them children identified with learning disabilities, children with dyslexia, and so on. What all of these children have in common is the fact that they're not able to negotiate the alphabetic writing system. For some reason, whether it's organic or whether it's experiential or whether it's familial, whatever it is, they're not able to get an access to the written code.

And what the research tells us is that what we need to do is give children access early on. Give them the experiences in kindergarten, even before kindergarten, where they can understand what reading is about. They had the insight about reading, and so on. And what all of this says is that prevention is critical and early intervention is critical. We know that prevention is superior to any kind of subsequent intervention.

If we start early, intervene early, give a sustained focus to, and a systematic approach to beginning reading we can turn these kids around. I think the literature is very clear about that. So, it's not necessarily about whether or not you grow up in an area of Hawaii for which you don't have a lot of experiences or you grow up in New York. The fact is, I think you, we, schools can make a difference, and they can make a difference early on.
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