Chapter 2 of The Reading Mind, “Sound It Out”: Summary, Implications and Discussion Questions


  • To decode text, a reader must (1) distinguish one letter from another, (2) hear individual speech sounds, and (3) know the mapping between letters (and letter groups) and speech sounds.
  • Letters are not designed for the sake of being easily distinguishable, and readers do often confuse the ones that look similar. Still, there aren’t that many to learn, so most children learn them without difficulty.
  • Humans are not born with the ability to hear individual speech sounds. In fact, individual speech sounds are influence by context: they vary in speakers with different regional accents for example, and the same person says the same speech sound differently depending on the other speech sounds in the word, So when we think of the sound associated with a letter, we’re really thinking of an ideal, an abstraction.
  • Being able to hear individual speech sounds in associated with reading success, and when children have trouble learning to read, this process is the most common stumbling block.
  • In contrast to some other languages, English uses a complicated mapping of speech sounds to letters (and letter groups). Still, the mapping is more orderly than you might guess, because the context in which a letter appears may provide information about its sound.
  • The mapping could be simpler. Still, most children learn it.


  • If the hearing of individual speech sounds is usually the trouble spot for children learning to read, that might mean it’s the biggest contributor to diagnosed cases of dyslexia. That seems to be true, but dyslexia is complicated and the extent to which other factors contribute remains actively debated.
  • If the basic components of decoding are hearing sounds, appreciating the differences between letters, and learning the mapping between them, then anything that promotes these abilities ought to help once reading instruction starts. I’ve mentioned phonological awareness is improved by wordplay like rhyme and alliteration. Adults reading aloud with children can also draw their attention to letters by pointing out the very fact that it’s the marks on the page that carry meaning, that some letters look the same, then we start at the left of a line and move to the right when we read, and so on. All these measures (and others are similar in spirit) teach children about letters and print, and give them an edge when reading instruction begins.
  • We might think that, when teaching children letters, we should label them with the sound they make, rather than the commonly used name. For example, when pointing out a “t” we shouldn’t that’s a tee, but instead say this letter says t, approximating as closely as possible the sound t in isolation, rather than saying tuh. This practice sounds logical because we’re implicitly teaching the letter-sound correspondence. Logical, but there’s no evidence that this practice helps, probably because almost all letter names at least contain the right sound.
  • The data shown in figure 2.0 indicate that, even though the letter-sound mapping in English is difficult, children do learn it, and by fourth grade their reading comprehension is comparable to their peers in countries where the letter-sound mapping is easier to learn. We should bear this finding in mind when thinking about reading progress within the US too. I can’t see an advantage to a school starting reading instruction especially early in because of the difficulty of the English mapping, and indeed, research indicates that any advantage to the code is transient. Kids who started later eventually become fluent decoders, and read as well as their early starting peers.

 Discussion Questions

  • If more children came to school with good phonological awareness, more would experience quick success in reading. Some children get incidental practice in phonological awareness (via read-alouds, for example), but many don’t. If you were the head of programming for children’s television for a major network.
  • The text provides an account of how we are able to read letters that look different. It assumes that letters share basic features, irrespective of typeface, size, and so on. That is, a capital “B” always has a vertical line and two semicircles on the right. But how, then, are you able to read print that is upside down?
  • Suppose a child grew up in household with parents who were born in another country and who speak English with heavy accents. Do you think that child would have more difficulty learning the mapping between letters and sounds because the examples used in reading instruction—the word “cat” for example—are pronounced with different speech sounds at home and at school?
  • I noted that learning to distinguish letters usually does not present a big problem for children learning to read. Nevertheless, perhaps it would be worthwhile to change fonts for beginning readers to make confusable letters less confusable, for example, by printing “d” with a dot inside the circle and “b” as it usually appears. As children move on to more advanced reading material, they will of course lose this cue, but by that time they likely won’t need it. Do you think such a measure would prove useful?”

Excerpted from: Willingham, Daniel T. The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017.

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