Written by Stacey Rickman
Learning to read is NOT a natural process - it must be taught.
Learning to speak and listen is a natural process that typically developing children learn by being immersed in oral language; learning to read is not, and must be taught (Wolf 2008, Dehaene 2009). This is because the written code that represents our spoken language is a human invention that must be taught from one generation to the next. Children must be explicitly taught the code to know it well and use it proficiently.
Although some children “crack the code” quite easily, being immersed in a print-rich or language-rich environment will not be enough for most students to learn to read. While some students will learn more easily than others, every student benefits from explicit, systematic, and sequential instruction of the code (Moats 2020b).
Any student can have trouble learning to read, not just those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia.
All students learn to read at different rates because their acquisition of the foundational skills necessary for reading develops along a continuum (Moats 2020a, Seidenberg 2017). While some students will learn and remember letter-sound correspondences quickly after just a few exposures, other students will require more repetition to develop this skill. Some students will need a significant number of opportunities for scaffolded practice of letter-sound blending in order to read words, while others will require less. Students with dyslexia often have difficulty learning and remembering letter-sound correspondences and developing phonemic awareness skills such as blending and segmenting (Spear-Swerling 2022). These students require more frequent and intense practice of these skills to develop the ability to decode words.
We all learn to decode, or “get the words off the page,” in the same way.
All students learn to decode in the same way - by mastering letter-sound correspondences and applying them to sound out words until this process becomes automatic. The neural circuitry formed in the brain through this process is essentially the same for all of us, but it is easier for some to develop (Dehaene 2009). Proficient readers see a written word and instantaneously associate its spelling with its pronunciation and meaning.
Learning to read begins long before Grade 1.
Oral language, the foundation for learning to read, begins to develop the moment we are born. Children’s speaking and listening skills advance when they are immersed in a language-rich environment. Print concepts develop when adults read to children and explore books together in a print-rich environment. During their preschool years, children are often exposed to books that focus on key literacy concepts such as rhyming, alliteration, vocabulary, and patterns of syntax. In kindergarten, formal literacy instruction includes developing an awareness of how words are made of sounds that can be manipulated (phonemic awareness) and how those sounds are represented by letters (phonics), in predictable ways. Kindergarten students who are taught letter-sounds and phonics patterns can begin using this knowledge to blend and segment sounds to read and write simple words before they head to grade one.
Learning to read continues long after Grade 3.
Once students are reading with fluency in later primary grades, literacy instruction focuses on accurate decoding of complex multi-syllabic words, spelling, building background knowledge, reading comprehension, and writing. Students are constantly learning to read and write with increasing ability until they graduate from high school. Even beyond high school, new vocabulary is learned whenever adults encounter new words in text or speech.
We know how to teach so that 95% of children can learn to read words.
There is a misconception that researchers don't really know how reading works. The truth is, reading is the most studied cognitive process in humans and it is deeply understood within the fields of cognitive science, neuroscience, educational psychology, and speech-language pathology. Many thousands of studies around the world have contributed to an enormous body of research known as The Science of Reading. FMRI technology has allowed us to see inside the reading brain. There is a plethora of definitive research on how the brain learns to read and which methods of instruction provide the best results for the most students. When we use this research to inform our teaching, we can expect 95% of students to learn to read words proficiently (Moats 2020b).
Most reading difficulties can be prevented
Struggling readers usually experience difficulty learning to read for one of three reasons - they may have difficulty with word recognition, language comprehension, or word recognition and language comprehension. These skills can be taught through explicit, systematic instruction that is essential for struggling readers and beneficial for all readers. Early screening is important for identifying students who are at risk for reading difficulties so that early intervention (for word recognition and/or language comprehension) can be provided. A prevention model, where students are identified and supported before they fail, requires less time, effort, and cost than a wait-to-fail model (Torgesen 1998).
Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the Brain: The new science of how we read. New York: Penguin Books.
Moats, L. C. (2020a). Speech to print: Language essentials for teachers (3rd ed.). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Pub.
Moats, L. C. (2020b). Teaching Reading is Rocket Science: What Expert Teachers of Reading Should Know and Be Able to Do. Washington, DC: American Federation of Teachers. Teaching-reading-is-rocket-science-2020.pdf
Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why so Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done about It. New York: Basic Books
Spear-Swerling, L. (2022). Structured Literacy Interventions: Teaching Students with Reading Difficulties, Grades K-6. New York: Guilford Press.
Torgesen, J. K. (1998). Catch Them Before They Fall Assessment and Intervention to Prevent Reading Failure in Young Children. Washington, DC: American Federation of Teachers.
Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain. Thriplow: Icon Books.
About the author:
Stacey Rickman, Hons. B.A., B.Ed., M.Cl.Sc., CALSPO & OCT
Stacey is a school board speech-language pathologist with a passion for structured literacy and the science of reading. She has been registered with the OCT since 1998, and the College of Audiologists and Speech-Language Pathologists of Ontario since 2001. When first working in Ontario schools, Stacey quickly realized that many of the students referred to her for speech-language concerns also experienced difficulty in acquiring reading and writing skills. Much of Stacey’s work in schools involves the assessment of students with language-literacy disabilities and consultation with their families and educators.