Top 5 Mistakes in Teaching Children to Read

October 11, 2021
Written by:
Guest Author

This post is written and sponsored by R. Kali Woodward, Founder, FUNetix

Learning to read is a rite of passage and a basic requirement for good citizenship and good jobs. Unfortunately, too many American children are struggling with learning to read. Too many American kids graduate from high school without basic literacy skills, putting them at a disadvantage for their career prospects.

The cause of this literacy crisis: America is teaching English reading the wrong way. We’ve been doing it wrong for at least 300 years, maybe closer to a thousand years or more.

Teaching children to read doesn’t have to be complicated, but English is a complicated language where the letters of the alphabet make many different sounds. This makes it harder for many children to learn to read, and not every child has the same learning style or the same natural affinity for the way that English reading is typically taught in America. We need to adjust our teaching methods to make sure no kids fall behind.

Here are the top five mistakes that American schools and parents are making when teaching reading, and what we should do instead.

Mistake #1. Teaching the ABCs in a Vacuum

We teach our 3, 4, and 5 year-olds the alphabet from the time they can hold their own sippy cups, but these 26 random squiggly shapes and their names have no real meaning to toddlers who are still learning how to speak.

What we should do instead: Teach the 44 sounds (“phonemes”) of the English language and give each sound a name and a pictogram. Showing children how to “say” the sounds of the language is more relevant and effective than just getting them to memorize the alphabet.

Mistake #2: Starting Early Reading Curricula with Three-Letter Words

Children come to first grade with an average of 20,000+ words of working vocabulary. But many early readers get started with simple words like “cat,” “sat,” and “mat.” But for many kids, this causes a boring, dumbed-down, sometimes nonsensical reading experience; they already know more complicated words than their reading lessons cover!

What we should do instead: Focus on phonemes instead of letters. This helps layer complexity into the children’s reading material, ensuring that the fundamentals make sense before adding to each child’s cognitive load.

Mistake #3: Teaching Sight Words

Sight words are an act of surrender. Instead of trying to explain things to kids in a way that helps them see the bigger picture, we just tell them: “Memorize these words and don’t ask any questions!”

What we should do instead: Treat every word as unique and irregular, and focus on the sound pieces that make up the word. When you learn where one sound piece stops and another begins, you’ll have no trouble learning how to read.

Mistake #4: Teaching Rules About Reading Instead of Teaching Reading Itself

You’ve probably heard of the word phonics. Phonics just means “mapping letters and groups of letters to sounds.” English phonics is the process of learning that, for example, the “ea” in “read” makes the long E (/ee/) vowel sound, while the same “ea” in “bread” makes the short e (/eh/) vowel sound.

Here’s the problem: when teaching reading in English, too many reading curricula focus on teaching phonics as a “rule” to remember. But rules are not a natural part of reading, except for very basic things like “read left to right.” Any time we stop to talk about rules, we’re derailing the reading learning process. Discussions about grammar, syntax, morphology, and rules about spelling and phonics-related letter patterns should be saved for much, much later in a student’s education.

What we should do instead: Teach the fundamentals of reading, such as blending and segmentation, using the 44 sounds of English and their corresponding letters and sound symbols. Let young readers discover the phonetic English code that’s 100% logical and regular, and that doesn’t require any processing of rules, or any memorization or conjugation.

Mistake #5: Asking Students to Attempt to Decode English Without the Information They Need to be Successful

We’re showing them words like “snow,” and “cow,” and telling them to sound them out, when we know full well that the “ow” in “snow” sounds different than the “ow” in “cow.”  We’re asking them to guess and fail instead of “showing them the sounds!”

What we should do instead: Borrow an ancient secret from the Greeks, and used today by millions of speakers of languages like Arabic, Hebrew, and Farsi: something called “diacritics.”

Diacritics are pronunciation symbols placed above and below words to reveal every sound in every word. These symbols help new readers by taking the mystery out of reading while simultaneously showing the lines of demarcation between the phonics pieces in any given word. As a result, with diacritics, any word can be decoded the first time it is viewed without requiring help from an adult.

Why We Need to Change Now: Fighting the Literacy Crisis

Some may argue that America’s method of teaching reading is good enough. After all, millions of people have already learned how to read “the old-fashioned way,” right?

The problem is: America’s method of reading instruction doesn’t work for everyone! Many young people and high school graduates are falling behind. Government statistics are released every year showing:

  • The majority of students in America’s public schools never achieve grade-level proficiency.
  • Nearly 25% of students drop out of school completely illiterate every year.

One million students per year for the past twenty years means there are 20 million completely illiterate young adults and more than 20 million functionally illiterate young adults who left school with no measurable education, no meaningful career skills, and no hope for future success.

What if we could teach reading in a more inclusive way that leaves no one behind? What if we could capture children’s imagination from the beginning, helping them learn to read in an easy, intuitive way?

Learning to read doesn’t have to be so hard. It’s time to explore a better alternative to teaching reading in the 21st century, based on the fundamentals of how English works and how young readers intuitively learn. Our children’s minds are precious and curious and eager to learn and grow. Every child deserves a better start at becoming a lifelong learner who loves to read.


R.Kali Woodward is the founding executive director of the American Youth lLiteracy Foundation, dba FUNetix® and the FUNetix 12 Hour Reading App™. More information can be found at


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