The Science Behind Learning to Read

For many years, education influencers led teachers, administrators, and parents to believe that learning to read was a natural process that all children would easily achieve if the conditions were right. 

These influencers wrote compelling books that sounded both promising and passionate, encouraging educators and caregivers to help their children learn to read naturally by giving the little ones lots of books, reading to them often, and teaching them to love reading. 

The truth? Reading is a complex process, and while exposing your child to reading and books early in life is helpful, many other pieces need to be in place for anyone to become a proficient reader. Believing in promises that were not grounded in brain science left generations of students underprepared for the reading challenges of middle school, high school, and beyond. 

Pretending that reading is natural and straightforward also creates a false and damaging narrative for students who don’t achieve proficiency as quickly as their peers. If a person did not learn to read based on the conditions created for them, they might surmise that there must be something wrong with them.  Worse yet, a teacher may have told the child or their parents that the kid is not a “good reader.” In reality, it may be that nothing is farther from the truth.  

Elementary literacy is complex

Learning to read takes more than just the right conditions. The human brain is not actually wired to read or write.  The intricate processes that it takes for the brain to translate letters and words on a page into thoughts that we can understand are unbelievably difficult. 

Using an alphabet and spelling rules to write down our ideas so that we may communicate them can be even harder. Our brains were meant to communicate orally, speaking words to share our thoughts and listening to others in order to receive information.

For most children, learning to talk is like learning to walk. Our brains are actually set up to make both of these processes happen naturally. We see this clearly when infants begin making sounds, imitating the language they hear around them. When parents speak English, the baby begins trying out a garbled version of English. The same is true of Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, or any other spoken language a child is immersed in. 

When a baby gains the muscle control to grasp the edge of the sofa, they experiment with pulling themselves up and tentatively placing one foot in front of the other.  Anyone who has cared for a toddler knows that these talking and walking experiments are not without frustration, along with bumps and bruises. Nevertheless, they are natural and our brains are primed to make them happen without instructions.  

Learning to read is a complex process that takes guidance and practice.

When temperatures around Metro Detroit warmed earlier this month, kids were out in our neighborhood shooting hoops and skateboarding. My own children dragged everything out of the garage in search of their bicycles.  Watching them find their helmets and check their tires had me thinking that if talking is like walking, learning to read is much more like learning to ride a bike. 

If helping someone ride was just about creating the right conditions, we would simply make sure that person had access to a bike and had seen someone ride a bike. We might also tell the learner how fun it is to ride, how much faster it is than walking, and how many places they could go if they learn to ride on their own. However, if you’ve ever taught a child how to ride a bike, you know there is so much more to do. 

For starters, a bike needs to be the right height for the child. Just as my eight year old daughter wouldn’t hop on her dad’s bike, we should consider starting kids on books that are the right size for them. We also need to explain some of the processes that are involved in pedaling and steering.  Of course, there are training wheels to help with balance, a steady hand to give a beginning push, and lots of repeated practice.

Ways to practice reading at home

In school, your child receives daily instruction on how to read and coaching on the word patterns and reading standards they are working to master.  Just as with walking, talking or riding a bike, the more targeted practice the better.  Below are some activities you can incorporate into your at-home reading routines to keep your child moving.  

Read to your child or listen to books together

When I was an upper elementary teacher, I always made it a point to share this interesting fact: Children benefit from being read to at least until the age of thirteen. That’s right. Thirteen. Years. Old.

Sometimes we think of listening to reading as an experience for younger children, something they outgrow once they are able to read on their own. I’ve heard other parents worry that if they read to their kids, the child will not practice reading to themselves. As children become more independent with their bedtime routines (showering and brushing their teeth on their own), parents typically find that reading aloud to them naturally wanes. Regardless of the age of the children, caregivers are overwhelmingly busy with work, cooking, chores, and all of the other demands of raising little humans. Whatever the case may be, setting a routine for reading aloud or listening to audiobooks is great for children’s literacy development and can be quick and easy. 

In our technology-assisted world, there are many terrific options for children to listen to books (with or without an adult).  In my house, we do a little of both. My husband or I read to our kids from books that we loved as kids or new books that we want to explore together. My daughter is currently hooked on the Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls books and my son loves Tristan Strong

Both of my children also adore audiobooks.  My son, a history buff, loves to listen to World War II stories on the way to practice or in the shower.  My daughter tucks in most nights listening to a Harry Potter book or the Son of Neptune.  Audiobooks take some of the pressure off busy parents by making it easier to listen anywhere or to multitask as you enjoy a story. 

What to do

Grab a piece of writing that you and your child are interested in, find a comfortable spot, and just read.  Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a perfect reader. In fact, when you stumble on a word or reread a sentence or two, you model for your child ways that they might need to react when they face a similar challenge. If there’s a plot twist and you find you want to go back to read a pivotal part again, you show your child that good readers return to pieces that they have already read to clarify their understanding, get more details, or just to enjoy a really entertaining part.  

Remember that you can read from books, magazines/newspapers (online or in print), blogs, anything you and your child will enjoy together.  My son is also a sports fanatic and from an early age, we have read selections from Sports Illustrated and ESPN together to indulge his passion.

Check with your local library for audio resources.  The Detroit Public Library system uses Overdrive and Libby and has curated collections based on interest. Many other metro area libraries use Hoopla.  All of these programs/apps are free with a library card and can be accessed on phones, tablets and computers.

Why reading aloud is so critical to reading development

When children listen to others read they’re hearing models of fluency, learning new vocabulary and pondering ideas that are more complex than what they can read on their own. They’re building their brain as a muscle so that when they do start to read independently, they are even stronger.

Reading aloud to your child helps them develop strong reading habits.

Listen to your child read aloud

Admittedly, this one can sometimes feel tougher and I get a lot of questions (see below) on how to best approach having your child read to you.  I promise the best way to do this is to keep it really simple.

Which books should I start with?

For K-2 Students: Our young readers all start on books known as “decodables.”  These small paper books are training wheels, written to help children practice the phonics rules that they are learning in class.  That means almost all of the words are sight words or words they can sound out.  Encourage your child to bring their decodable books home, or you can access them electronically on the UPrep Schools Elementary Literacy Parent Site.  Other sources for decodable texts are available here as well.

For 3-5 Students: Explore your child’s interest and let them guide you.  Chapter books and series are great because they build stamina and keep you from having to find something new every night. 

How to help when your child gets “stuck”

I am officially giving you permission to just tell your child some of the words they get stuck on. Educators don’t expect caregivers to be phonics coaches and trying to sound out words that don’t follow patterns can be really tough. Additionally, giving your child the word is more fruitful than having them guess the word or use picture clues; those prompts are not the best for reading development. Instead, try this:

When your child is stuck on a word they don’t know, read the word to yourself first. Ask yourself if you can help your child sound it out based on the letters. If you can help them sound it out, do so. 

Keep in mind that sounding out a word has no relation to how long the word is, but whether or not the letters in the word say the sounds that you would expect. For example, the word “remember” is a bit on the long side and might look intimidating when a child sees it on the page. However, all of the parts of the word make the sounds according to phonics rules that most kids have mastered by the end of second grade. 

You can help your child by saying, “What does r-e say together?  What does “m-e-m” say together?  What does “b-e-r” say together?  Once you have the pieces, say the word “remember” a few times. 

On the other hand, take a word like “was.” A much shorter word, “was” seems like it should be less intimidating but if we are going on letters and sounds, “was” should be spelled “wuz.”  If you try to sound it out you may find yourself looking crazy over three little letters that you never thought about that hard before. I promise, in the moment it’s not that deep. Tell your child that “was” is a tricky word because the letters don’t make the sounds we think they should make, then move on. Keep your kid reading. Yes, we address these things in school with phonics rules and lots of practice, but that’s not what I’m suggesting at home.

Why listening to your child read is important for literacy development

Parents and caregivers are often very concerned about comprehension; after all, the goal of reading is to understand the ideas and information from the page. Because of this desire, some parents feel like they need to ask a lot of questions. I am giving you my blessing to pull back here as well. If we return to the bike analogy, asking comprehension questions is a bit like checking the air pressure in your tires. It is important to do it once in a while or if you suspect there’s something wrong.

However, if you squeeze your tire and feel that it could use some air, you don’t usually get a pressure gauge out to get an official reading. You certainly don’t get two or three gauges out. Instead, you go to the solution: put some air in the tire. Listen for leaks or inspect for a hole.

In the reading scenario, stop periodically to ask your child a question about what’s happening in the story or to check if they understood an important idea. If they are missing something critical, don’t ask a bunch more questions. Instead, direct them to reread the part of the text that will help them gain a better understanding.  After they’ve re-read, ask your question again. Praise them for rereading and remind them that good readers read more than once and go back in the text to deepen their understanding.

Reading fluency (reading smoothly and with expression) is one of the best predictors for reading comprehension. When kids sit too long trying to figure out a single word or are interrupted by a lot of questions, it interferes with the thoughts they’re constructing about the text. At home, reading time is limited and precious, so consider these guidelines to keep it moving, preserving your child’s fluency and aiding their comprehension.

You CAN help your child learn to read and become proficient

The above practices are important and helpful for your child’s literacy development, but your sanity is also key. Like an enjoyable spring bike ride, reading together should be a fun part of your day. If you’re working on new reading routines at home, it’s okay to start small (a few days a week, 10-20 minutes each time) and build a consistent schedule. If you have a routine that makes you and your child happy, reflect on what’s going well and consider adding in some fresh ways to work on fluency and comprehension together.

Our Author: Kristin Venier
Senior Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Elementary Literacy, U Prep Schools

Kristin Venier firmly believes that literacy is equity. As the Senior Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Elementary Literacy at UPrep Schools, Kristin works to ensure that reading and writing instruction are grounded in research and give students ample opportunity to meet their personal goals.   A native of metro Detroit, Kristin began her career as an elementary school teacher in West Philadelphia and North Philadelphia before joining the UPrep Crew more than ten years ago.  Kristin earned bachelors’ degrees in journalism and Spanish from Michigan State University and a master’s degree in education from The University of Pennsylvania.