Learning How To Read

Learning how to read can be a very challenging experience for children.

Many children find it difficult but it's also true that some children learn to read easily and quite quickly without needing very much in the way of formal instruction.

learning how to read

On this page, you'll find out why this is the case and learn how you can give your child a head-start when it comes to learning how to read.

As a primary (elementary) school teacher, I have a strong interest in how children learn to read.

This is mainly the result of the experiences I had with my own three children who are now young adults and with my five nephews who range in age from four to 16 years. All eight of these children learned to read easily and quickly progressed to becoming strong, capable readers within the first three years of starting school. And they're not alone.

Yet many children I have taught have struggled with reading.

So why is this the case? Why do children have such different experiences when they're learning how to read?

There's actually no mystery about it. The research shows very clearly that children with strong oral language skills who have been read to often as pre-schoolers learn to read much more easily and quickly than children who don't have these two advantages.

Could it really be that simple, I hear you ask?

Absolutely!

Let's talk a bit more about this.

How Children Learn to Read

Reading is a complex process for our brains.

Humans have evolved biologically to develop the ability to speak and to acquire language without being explicitly taught how to do it. Given even minimal input from the people around her, a baby who is developing normally will learn to talk without needing to be taught how to do it.

Reading is different. We do not develop the ability to read in the same way we develop the ability to speak so reading, for most people, is something that needs to be taught and learned.

To read more about what reading is and the skills it involves, click here.

Learning how to read involves a number of quite distinct skills that must be learned and then brought together in order for a child to be able to read fluently and with understanding.


9 Building Blocks of Reading

Here's a list of the nine skills children learn on their way to becoming capable independent readers: 

learning how to read
  1. oral language skills
  2. phonological awareness
  3. storytelling knowledge
  4. comprehension
  5. print awareness
  6. letter-sound correspondence
  7. decoding skills
  8. fluency
  9. prosody

Educators call the process of developing these nine skills emergent literacy.

Click here to read more about them.


Learning How to Read Starts Before School

Many people think that learning how to read is something that happens at school when children are about five or six but the learning-how-to-read journey takes several years and actually begins a long time before a child starts school.

In fact, it starts at birth when babies first begin to tune in to the sound of spoken language. As they do this, they are developing two of the nine building blocks of reading: phonological awareness and oral language skills.

These two skills are critical pre-reading skills. Research and the experience of teachers around the world shows that children who do not develop these two skills will struggle with learning how to read.

The good news is that these two skills don't have to be formally taught. They develop naturally if a child is brought up in an ordinary, loving and nurturing home where he is read to, enjoys loving interactions with adults and is encouraged to explore his world.

The key is to read aloud to your child often, a lot and from the time they're babies.

There's also a right way to read aloud. It involves reading slowly, with lots of pauses for your child to ask questions, reading with expression and having fun with reading.

Read more about how to read aloud here.

What about the other seven skills?

By reading aloud to your child often and in the right way, you will also be stimulating the development of the other seven skills too!


Helping Children Develop Pre-Reading Skills

When you read aloud to a young child, he or she begins to understand that those squiggly black lines in the book mean something. They tell mum or dad when to read in a funny voice and what's going to happen next. Your child will also learn which way to hold a book (which is the front cover?) and how to turn the pages. This is called print awareness.

Sadly, there are children who begin school without this knowledge.

Reading aloud also helps a child develop an understanding of how stories work (storytelling knowledge).

Take reading fairy tales as an example.

Fairy tales have a pretty standard format. They often start with "once upon a time", there's a good-versus-evil story line with clearly-defined good and bad characters and there's a resolution where good triumphs over evil. Children very quickly begin to understand this format, the sequence of events and to anticipate how a story will play out.

Comprehension and oral language skills develop as the child and the adult reading discuss the words, characters and events in the story. This widens the child's knowledge of the world, especially of things, events and people which are not part of his or her everyday life.

Phonological awareness develops as children tune in to the sounds of spoken language. Poetry and rhyme are particularly important stimulators of phonological awareness, so poems and rhyming stories (such as Dr Seuss books) are wonderful to share with little ones.

Prosody in reading refers to the tune and rhythm the reader uses as he or she reads. As an adult reads aloud, he or she is modelling for the listening child how reading sounds. This may seem like a small thing but it's important. We learn how to do something by observing someone who does it well and this gives us something to copy and aim for.

The final two skills of the nine building blocks of reading are letter-sound correspondence and decoding skills.

Of the nine, these two are the ones that are most commonly taught at school in a formal way. But these two often develop spontaneously when a child has been read to often and from a young age.

This is because, when reading is fun, a child will often be fascinated by the process and will begin to ask questions about the letters and words he sees on the page and about the writing he sees on signs and so on when he's out and about.

This happened a lot with my own children and with my nephews when they were small. The best story I have concerns my son, James, who was two when he pointed to and read the word "James" on his cot blanket (the brand was St James).


References:

Center, Y. (2005). Beginning Reading. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Coyne, M. D; McCoach, D. B; Loftus, S; Zipoli, Jr. R; & Kapp, S. (2009)Direct Vocabulary Instruction in Kindergarten: Teaching for Breadth versus Depth. Elementary School Journal, Vol. 110 Issue 1, p1-18.

Hirsh-Pasek, K; & Golinkoff, R. (2003). Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. USA: Rodale.

Hoover, W.A; Gough, P.B. (1990). The Simple View of Reading. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 2: 127-160.

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