How Can I Teach My Child to Read?

Alternative Approaches to Teaching Reading

Learn about the common methods used for teaching children to read, including the different approaches to phonics instruction…

How to teach kids to read in the most effective way has been the subject of a lot of debate and research over the years.

In this article, we outline the main approaches for teaching children to read.  Please see the other articles in this section if you want to know more about the effectiveness of each method. 

We’ve also written an article that gives you step-by-step instructions for teaching your child to read using phonics.

Click here for a summary of this article, or browse the contents of the main article below…



Most reading instruction is based on one or more of the methods outlined below:

  • Phonics: instruction focuses on the sounds represented by letters in the alphabet. There are 2 main approaches to teaching phonics – synthetic and analytic.  Skills and knowledge can be delivered in a pre-determined, highly structured ‘systematic’ way, or in a less structured ‘embedded’ fashion.
  • Whole Word / Look and Say / Flash Cards: children memorise complete words by constant repetition.
  • Whole Language: an emphasis on making sure that reading activities are relevant, interesting and meaningful for children. There may be some phonics instruction, but not delivered in an explicit or systematic way.  Children are taught to think about the structure and context of the sentence to help them identify unknown words.  Children are encouraged to write about things that interest them using invented spelling
  • Native / Natural Reading: learning to read without formal instruction. The idea is to provide plenty of opportunities for children to read with adults or older children so they will hopefully pick up the rules of written language in much the same way as they learn to understand spoken language.

The Different Methods:

If you browse the internet and search for “teaching my child to read” the number of different options available might seem overwhelming.  However, most types of reading instruction are just variations or combinations of the ones below:

  • Phonics
  • Whole Word / Look and Say / Flash Cards
  • Whole Language
  • Native / Natural Reading


The word phonics is derived from the Greek root word ‘phon’, which means “sound” (think telephone or microphone).  So the term phonics is used to describe any method of teaching reading where the emphasis is on recognising the individual sounds that are represented by letters or groups of letters. 

There are several different ways of teaching phonics and we’ve summarised these below:

Synthetic / Explicit / Blended Phonics...

Synthesis is the combination of individual components to form a connected whole, so in synthetic phonics lessons, children are taught to combine individual letter sounds to make words.  For example, the letter sounds for ‘c’ – ‘a’ – ‘t’ can be combined to form the word ‘cat’. 

With synthetic phonics, children are taught to recognise the individual sounds represented by letters or groups of letters before they start to look at whole words. 

Synthetic phonics is also sometimes referred to as explicit phonics or blended phonics.

Analytic / Implicit Phonics...

There seems to be some variation in how analytic phonics is taught but a common theme seems to be that children are asked to analyse groups of whole words to identify similar sounds and letter patterns.  They are then encouraged to figure out letter-sound relationships from these patterns. 

Next, they might be given some different words with similar letter patterns and they are instructed to use the letter-sound relationships they’ve learned to help them read the new words.

As an example, children could be introduced to a series of words that start with the same letter, such as ‘pin’, ‘pot’, ‘pan’, ‘pig’, ‘peg’ and ‘pet’.  The teacher might instruct the children to listen to the first sound as she reads each word out loud and they will be guided to recognise that the letter ‘p’ makes this sound. 

Children might also be encouraged to analyse larger chunks of letters in words.  So, for example, they could be given a list of words such as ‘cat’, ‘bat’, ‘hat’, ‘mat’ and ‘sat’ and it might be expected that they could identify the letter combination ‘at’ from these words. 

The idea is that once they’ve learned this information they should be able to read a previously unseen word such as ‘pat’ because it’s made up of letter patterns they’ve already encountered in other words.

The starting sound of a word is sometimes described as the onset and the rest of a single syllable word is sometimes described as a rime (not quite the same as rhyme).  Hence, this sort of analytical approach is sometimes called onset and rime

Breaking words up into onset and rime patterns can result in a different approach to reading a word than with synthetic phonics.  For example, a child might be guided to read the word ‘chop’ as ‘ch’–‘op’ using onset and rime, whereas with synthetic phonics it would be ‘ch’–‘o’–‘p’.

Analytic phonics is also sometimes called implicit phonics because children are encouraged to infer the letter-sound relationships in words themselves rather than being told them directly and explicitly by the teacher.

A simple comparison of synthetic phonics vs analytic phonics might be:


  1. Teach individual letter-sound relationships.
  2. Teach how to read words by combining (blending) letter-sounds in the words.


  1. Compare some whole words to identify common letter patterns.


  2. Deduce some of the letter-sound relationships from these words.


  3. Use the learned letter-sound relationships to read new words.

Systematic Phonics

This involves teaching the letter-sound relationships in an organised and sequenced fashion.  Letters and sounds to be learned are planned well in advance of the lessons. 

Children start with the simplest parts of the alphabet code first and they are gradually introduced to more complex letter-sound relationships

Books read by children might be selected to fit in with the planned sequence of letter and sound instruction.  Both synthetic and analytic phonics can be taught in a systematic way.

Embedded Phonics

Sometimes referred to as incidental phonics, this involves a less structured approach than systematic phonics. 

Some letter-sound relationships might be pointed out as they are encountered while the teacher is reading to a group of children.  However, these might not be introduced in any particular order, but rather when the teacher recognises appropriate opportunities in a book. 

Books are more likely to be chosen for their storyline or information content rather than for highlighting particular letters and sounds.

Systematic Synthetic Phonics

Some phonics reading programmes are described using this term.  It’s really just a combination of the terms we’ve already mentioned.  So, a concise systematic synthetic phonics definition would be:

“A method of reading instruction where children are taught how to combine the individual sounds represented by letters.  The instruction is done in an organised and sequenced fashion .”

Systematic explicit phonics instruction is just an alternative phrase for the same thing.

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Whole Word / Look and Say / Flash Cards...

With this method, the focus is on getting children to memorise complete words.  Whole word recognition might be encouraged before children are taught to identify the individual letters which make up the words. 

Some programmes encourage children to draw boxes around the letters in words (like the examples below) because this helps them to remember the shape of the words. 

Whole word shape

Words might be introduced using flash cards or through video or computer programmes and memorisation of the words is often reinforced by encouraging children to look at predictable and repetitive texts. 

Constant repetition is the key learning strategy using this method as children are repeatedly exposed to the same words.

Some Whole Word programmes expect children to figure out common spelling patterns and letter-sound relationships after they’ve memorised a significant number of words.  Other programmes might supplement whole word instruction with some analytic phonics.

Some phonics programmes use whole word memorisation for ‘irregular’, or ‘tricky’ words that don’t follow the most common phonics patterns.

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Whole Language...

This is a system that’s difficult to define because there isn’t a standard prescribed method or sequence of instruction.  Some proponents actually describe it as a philosophy rather than a method of instruction.1, 2

Nevertheless, there are some broad guidelines that fall under the philosophical umbrella of Whole Language…  

For example, there’s an emphasis on making sure that reading activities are relevant, interesting and meaningful for the children.  So children might be encouraged to talk about their own experiences and the teacher might write these down so they can read them together afterwards. 

Books are chosen because they have interesting storylines or informative content rather than for highlighting particular letters and sounds.  However, some phonics instruction might be delivered in an ‘embedded’ style (see the section on embedded phonics above). 

In contrast to Whole Word or phonics instruction, children are unlikely to be asked to look at words or letters in isolation on flash cards or in lists during Whole Language lessons.

Although a Whole Language approach might include some embedded phonics instruction, other strategies for identifying words are also encouraged.  Children are taught to think about the structure and context of the sentence to help them identify unknown words and they might also be asked to look at pictures to give them a clue.

Another idea associated with Whole Language is that children are encouraged to write about things that interest them and they are allowed to spell in their own style when they are learning to read and write.  This is sometimes called invented spelling

Accurate spelling or letter formation isn’t considered important in the early stages and the emphasis is more on allowing the child to express themselves in a free and unrestricted way.  Consequently, correcting spellings might be seen as unnecessary interference by the teacher. 

In a similar vein, some whole language theorists discourage teachers from giving too much corrective feedback when a child reads words incorrectly. 

As long as a child is able to say a word that’s broadly suitable in the context of the passage, this might be viewed as a successful interpretation of the text. 

So reading fast for quick, bag for sack, boat for ship or hot for fiery could be seen as a sign of good progress, and intervention by the teacher might be discouraged.

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Native / Natural Reading

Some people believe that children don’t need any direct reading instruction because they will learn to read naturally if they spend time in a literature-rich environment. 

They assume that children can pick up the rules of written language in much the same way as they learn to understand spoken language – so long as they are provided with access to interesting books and adult role models who read to them. 

Some proponents of Whole Language hold this view:

“…children discover these patterns best through much exposure to authentic, real, meaningful, interesting texts. In most cases, this occurs naturally” 1

The term ‘Native Reading’ appears to have been coined by computational biologist Timothy Kailing who has written a book describing how he taught his own children to read when they were very young.3 

Kailing believes that the best time for a child to learn to read is when they are between one and three years old because the brains of young children are more receptive as they are learning to understand spoken language at the same time.

He says that it’s important to read frequently with your child and he suggests that you run your finger under the text as you read. 

Although Kailing doesn’t believe young children need formal instruction in reading, he does encourage playing with magnetic or foam words and letters and alphabet blocks to familiarise children with them.  The idea is to provide children with plenty of opportunities to see the correlations between written and spoken language.

There’s been a lot of debate over the years about how to teach children to read and a considerable amount of research has been done into the relative merits of the alternative methods.  We assess some of this research in other articles in this section.

See below for other useful links.

Further Information…

If you would like to learn more about teaching your child to read using phonics, click on this link.

If you want to know how to improve your child’s reading comprehension, see the following article: Reading Comprehension Basics.

If you would like to know more about teaching spelling, see the following article: How Can I Teach My Child to Spell? Basic Principles.

If you would like to know more about teaching your child to write, click on this link.

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  1. About Whole Languages Principles, Kathy Lofflin, Ph.D.:
  2. Bowman-Kruhm, M. Whole Language: What It Is, What It Isn’t:
  3. Kailing, T. The Native Reading Website (2008):