Do children learn to read English words like pictures?

I have an almost six year old son learning to read.  This is my fourth child, my other daughters are 18, 20 and 23.  My son is learning to read without the benefit of siblings around him to help him learn.

It struck me recently that he is learning to read partially by saying the letters in a word (e.g., ‘ke’, ‘ah’, ‘t’ – ‘cat’), but there are many other words that don’t seem to make sense to him when ‘sounding’ the letters in the word.  For example, ‘bear’.  Given that there are at least two ways to say words with the letters ‘ear’ in them (for example, ‘bear’, ‘tear’ (from an eye), ‘tear’ (the fabric)), I was curious to see how he sounded it out.  In the end, he appeared to be recognising that a string of characters (e.g., b, e, a, r) in the context of a story about bears what probably the word for bear, pronounced (at least in Australia) exactly like ‘bare’.

I wondered, then, do some children learn to read not by being able to string the letters together into a recognisable sound, but by recognising the ‘set’ of words, perhaps in the same way that Chinese children learn characters?  After all, no matter what some might say, the lines in a Chinese character are just that – lines on a page.  The ‘package’ of lines is a picture that the child learns, and learns to pronounce in their own dialect or language.

This theory may be more true in languages that are not pronounced as they are written (for example, Chinese, Vietnamese, English, French, Portuguese), and less so in languages that are pronounced more or less exactly how they are written (for example, Italian, Bahasa Indonesia, Tagalog).  Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew are a little different – Arabic (with which I am very familiar) is a non-sensical set of letters without knowing how the vowels (a, i, u) work.

English is full of homonyms that can have different spelling (for example, ‘rose’, ‘rows’, ‘bough’, ‘bow’) as well as words that look like they should have the same pronunciation but clearly don’t (the best examples are the ‘ough’ words – tough/rough, bough, through, slough/enough, though, thought).  How is a child supposed to learn these words?  ‘A man rose, then rows his boat to pick a rose among the rows’.  ‘Though the sloth thought it was tough, he fell through the bough and so fell into a slough’.

I believe children learn many words initially by recognising them as pictures. Eventually they learn the letters, and what the word means and how to put it in context with other words that make sense.  And, possibly, as we grow older, we forget words because we forget the picture that we learned when we were young.

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