How Do We Read?

Reading is a complex cognitive process of decoding symbols to construct meaning. In addition to talking about reading books and texts, we also refer to other types of reading such as reading music, reading the time, reading a map.  In all cases, multiple cognitive processes are involved to make meaning from symbolic visual representations.

The following components are necessary in order to learn to read fluently and with understanding, all of which will be described in greater detail throughout the module:

  • Print Awareness
  • Phonological Awareness
  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Letter-Sound Correspondence
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension

Contrary to oral language skills, these reading skills must be taught, as they are not a natural part of human development. For a description of the developmental milestones for reading, see pages 75-79 of the document Foundations for Literacy: An Evidence-Based Toolkit for the Effective Reading and Writing Teacher. Click here to access this document.

Primary students reading on a bench

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 [1].  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 [2].


facts about reading

Click here to view and download Did You Know? The FACTS about reading.

The Right to Read Report

The Supreme Court of Canada released a unanimous decision in 2012, recognizing that learning to read is not a privilege but a basic and essential human right. The Court said:

“…adequate special education…is not a dispensable luxury. For those with severe learning disabilities, it is the ramp that provides access to the statutory commitment to education made to all children…”

Almost 10 years later, on February 28, 2022, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) released the findings of the Right to Read inquiry and their recommendations for improving literacy instruction in Ontario (click here to access the OHRC Right to Read Executive Summary and Key Recommendations). The report revealed that methods used to teach reading to students in Ontario have been seriously flawed. The report states that:

“Ontario’s public education system is failing students with reading disabilities (such as dyslexia) and many others, by not using evidence-based approaches to teach them to read” [3].

By implementing the recommendations of the OHRC at the foundational classroom level, educators can improve reading scores and skills, while significantly reducing the need for Tier 2 and 3 supports. The Right to Read report provided over 150 recommendations to improve how reading is taught in Ontario.

Core Recommendations of the Report:

  1. Changes should be made to curriculum and instruction to teach word reading in an evidence-based way.
  2. Students in Kindergarten through to Grade 2 should be screened twice a year to identify struggling readers.
  3. All reading interventions should be evidence-based and provided to ALL students who need them.
  4. Accommodations such as assistive technology should be accessible to all students, however, they are NOT a substitute for teaching students to read.
  5. Professional assessments should be timely, based on clear criteria, and the selection process should account for the risk of bias students may experience due to their cultural, linguistic, racial, or economic background. Professional assessments should never be required for interventions or accommodations.

Why Should We Change the Way Reading is Instructed?

The way that reading is currently taught in Ontario varies by board, school, and even teacher. The OHRC’s Right to Read report has recommended that all school boards begin providing science-based classroom reading instruction. Having province-wide consistency means that regardless of their location in Ontario or the school they attend, all students will have equitable access to high-quality literacy instruction. In addition, the OHRC has recommended that when school boards provide reading interventions, they should be offered as early as possible and should be proven effective.

When taught to read in science-based, systematic, and explicit ways, approximately 95% of students can learn to read [4].

Science-based (sometimes called evidence-based) – Over 40 years of research in education, psychology, and neuroscience has taught us so much about how the brain learns to read. This science has shown us that the foundational reading skills are the same for all people and all spoken languages.

Systematic – Students are taught using a carefully planned process where new skills build on previously learned concepts.

Explicit – Explicit teaching means that lessons are taught in a clear, structured way. This usually starts with a modelling stage, where the teacher shows exactly how the task should be performed. This is followed by a gradual release of responsibility to the students, first in guided practice, where the teacher steps in where needed and then through independent practice, until the student can complete the task alone.


[1] Wolf 2008, Dehaene 2009

[2] Moats 2020

[3] OHRC, 2022

[4]Fletcher & Vaughn, 2009