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.  


Education During the Pandemic: Getting Creative with Learning During Chaos

Education during the pandemic hasn’t been a walk in the park or a picnic. However, these adverse circumstances have helped U Prep educators engage their creativity and innovation to keep our scholars engaged with learning.

Pandemic! Virtual school! Distance learning…Oh my!

I was overjoyed to be asked to give my perspective on how the pandemic has forever changed me and my teaching practice. Although I’m an optimist at heart, and not very easily discouraged, the drastic shutdown when COVID first hit gave me pause. I believe that the apprehension simply came from the unknown. Soon after taking a deeper dive into the ever-changing tenets of pandemic teaching and learning, I reset and forged ahead into this new creative and innovative space. 

When I first heard that we would be teaching virtually, I was both relieved and nervous. Relieved because my children and I would be safe from COVID but nervous because I had never delivered online instruction before. I coached myself through a new lens of “this glass is half full, not half empty” and I moved forward. I knew that if I approached this unfamiliar space with negativity at the helm, I would never reach the levels of flexibility and adaptability required for success during this tumultuous stage.

Beginning a new style of education during the pandemic

The first thing I did was brainstorm with my math partners, as I was sure of two things: I wanted to develop a structure using programs for accountability. And the infusion of interactive instruction would be key to holding my scholar’s attention and offering the space for their feedback while challenging their curiosity.  

I thoroughly researched best practices and how to maintain motivation and engagement with scholars during our distance learning period. One of the websites that I frequented regularly offered five ways to motivate students in the virtual space.  

These five became my north star as I guided each scholar (and myself) through this new space and opportunity. Some of the most effective strategies were:

  • Motivate with goal setting
  • Motivate with rewards and praise
  • Motivate with meaningful feedback
  • Work with parents to motivate students at home
  • Stay connected as a class and motivate each other

Motivating the students also meant creativity, a cheerful disposition, and presence online. I had to be prepared to provide additional support to every scholar. I was up for the challenge, and I began each day of virtual/distance learning in good spirits, and with the determination that “this” would be a great year! I even received feedback from parents who shared that they “loved the fact that I seemed excited every day while teaching.”  What an honor and humbling feeling to know that my parents appreciated my unique style of teaching by leading with enthusiasm. Nothing, however, compared to the accomplished feeling of having 95% attendance rates in my classes throughout the duration of the distance learning. 

In-person learning during the pandemic

As we transitioned back to our building, and back to in-person learning, my enthusiasm remained and creativity increased. My innovative mindset and that of my scholars are here to stay. This pandemic, if nothing else, stretched our thinking, evolved our practice, and forced us into a new, freer space that challenged what we thought was creative and innovative instruction.

We will continue to expand and develop through that lens of challenge and freedom while keeping the school community safe. Our scholars have proven to be resilient in adversity, and our entire school community truly executed the concept of partnership and trust in the process and each other. 

Our Author: Erica Wade

Erica Wade is a Math Teacher at University Prep Science & Math Middle School. She has been an educator for over ten years, with the majority of her teaching experience in middle school instruction. Erica is a long-term educator at U Prep Schools Network. She told us, “This is my 6th year in the district and I have enjoyed every minute of it.”

Erica Wade

Restorative Practices in Education

Relationships—Not Rules, Not Policies, Not Procedures Drive Human Development

Restorative Justice in Education is an invitation to create educational cultures that emphasize social engagement rather than social control. This does not imply that rules, policies, evaluation, telling, and success are irrelevant; it simply means that these serve the needs of people living within the community, not the other way around. Restorative Practices in education hold the possibility for changing learning factories into gardens where seeds are planted and growth is nurtured.

Context, Culture, and Relationships

I want to tell you a story from the book Running on Empty by Jonice Webb Ph.D. A young lady named Sarah came home from school and soon after, got a call that a boy in her class committed suicide. She was overwhelmed by a wave of shock, confusion, and grief, a “whirl of emotions she had not felt before”  (Webb, 2015, 40:53). She raced home hoping to talk with her mother and was a bit surprised to learn that her mom had already heard the news. Sarah was still hoping to talk through the complexity of her new compound emotion. Before she could say anything her mother said, “I heard about Johnny, I’m not surprised, I think the young man was on drugs”, and that was the extent of the conversation. Her mother didn’t ask her how she felt and never brought up the topic again, and as a result, Sarah pivoted emotionally – she masked her emotion and tried not to think about it. She was caught off guard by how easily she cried at odd times or when left alone with her own thoughts. She attended the funeral and focused on her friends, their grief, her school work and simply, moved on. 

To Sarah’s dismay, two more students in her school committed suicide. She attended those funerals as well, focused on her friends, just as she did when John died. Different however from before, in neither of these instances, did she bother to speak to her mother. She also never acknowledged or spoke about how grief-stricken and disturbed she was by the suicides. Eventually, Sarah started to lose her ability to focus in class. Her grades started to slip, she struggled and even began feeling a sense of anger that she could not shake. Her parents became angry and indignant with her asking “what’s wrong with you?” rhetorically, not really looking to engage her because they genuinely didn’t have the emotional awareness to do so. Consequently, Sarah thought the same thing, “what’s wrong with me?” She started to believe that she was weak, stupid, and uncooperative, and she felt this way well into adulthood. She would describe herself as “numb.” She had learned to cut herself off from her emotions so that they would not bother her. She would also feel weak and ashamed any time she felt emotion. Sarah had an amazing childhood, loving parents, but despite all of that, adult Sarah wanted to die.

After listening to the story—just being vulnerable here—I was in tears. I can remember a time when I was a kid, probably 6 years old. I watched the movie Boyz n the Hood with my mom and brother. When I saw Ricky turn and run for his life down that alley only to be gunned down, I lost a sense of safety and security. Questions flooded my mind “Could that happen to me? Why were they so mad that they had to kill him? Why didn’t anyone help him? He didn’t do anything to them, so if someone is mad at me will they just kill me?” This might sound dramatic but something in the 6-year-old me was assaulted during that family time. “Moms” didn’t ask me how the movie impacted me. We just went to bed and moved on with life. In my household, we were not allowed to be afraid or show fear. “Don’t be soft” was a phrase that was often used against any kid who showed a hint of fear. I knew while watching that movie that I couldn’t show that I was terrified by what I saw. So I did what Sarah did, I masked my emotion. As a result, however, I was always anxious, I never felt safe or protected. I also struggled to feel like I could be a “real man”—whatever that means. I never spoke to anyone about that experience until I started therapy some 15 years later.

Child Interpretation + Caregiver Attunement = Healthy Development

Relationships—not rules, not policies, not procedures—drive human development. The quality of those relationships, the adults’ attunement to the child, and the child’s ability to interpret emotions and thoughts from lived experiences, which is facilitated by the quality of their connectedness to their caregiver, either leads to positive and healthy development or negative and unhealthy development. According to Osher et al (2020) human development occurs through reciprocal co-actions between the individual and their contexts and culture, with relationships as the key drivers. Relationships and contexts, along with how children appraise and interpret them, can be risks and assets for healthy learning and development, and their influence can be seen across generations and can produce intra- as well as intergenerational assets and risks. 

What does this have to do with restorative practices in education?

Restorative practices in education

Restorative Practices (RP) in education are primarily about nurturing relational interconnectedness. Here at University Prep Schools we have adopted the Restorative Justice in Education framework as the structure for establishing, cultivating, and sustaining a restorative community. At the heart of the framework are two core beliefs—all people are worthy and relationally connected. 

Osher’s findings essentially justify any “child-serving system,” for adopting and prioritizing a relationship first philosophy because development is driven by the integration of neural malleability and plasticity with the dynamic relational interconnectedness of children and the adults with whom they interact in their social, cultural, and physical contexts. In other words, the quality of a person’s sense of worth is proportional to their sense of connectedness to the primary caregivers in their lives. This matters because just as you read in both Sarah’s and my own story, when children are left to respond to and interpret life events on their own, especially potentially traumatic events, they can be overwhelmed by their thoughts and emotions accompanied by that experience. If the adults or caregivers in their lives are not attuned to the child, attentive to and noticing the impact of such events, dismissing the impact, or chastising the child for responding emotionally the child most likely will begin to think of themselves as “fatally flawed.” This kind of thinking has a direct impact on their learning outcomes. It is my responsibility to add to the foundation that was laid by building our attunement and response skills. The goal is to increase one’s ability to respond to the contextual factors and experiences that influence a student’s behavior and perhaps reach restoration. 

Restorative Practices In Instruction

In addition to proactively establishing relationships through focusing on attunement and responsiveness, another dimension of my role is to develop capacity around intentionally leveraging relationships to support students through moments of academic struggle, the moment when they recognize what they can do on their own and what they cannot do unless supported or guided. This is formally referred to as the zone of proximal development or ZPD. Zaretta Hammond encourages us to cultivate relationships that support dependent learners in taking intellectual risks and stretch into the ZPD. That’s the point of nurturing healthy relationships, supporting dependent learners in avoiding stress and anxiety, and earning the right to push students to be excellent and put forth the effort. She goes on further summarizing that the ultimate goal is to help the dependent learner become active in making decisions about their learning moves. She offers these tools:

  • Kid friendly vocabulary for talking about their learning moves
  • Checklists to help hone their decision making skills during learning and their attention during data analysis
  • Tools for tracking their own progress towards learning targets
  • Easily accessible space to store their data
  • Regular time to process their data
  • Practice engaging in metacognitive conversations
  • A clear process for reflecting on and acting on teacher or peer feedback.

Restoring the U Campaign 

By definition, the word restore means to bring back to its original state or form. This is often thought to be the case in the context of restorative practices, specifically when responding to and repairing harm. Restore the relationship to the pre-conflict status quo. Well, what if the pre-conflict nature of the relationship was less than ideal? What if communication was toxic? Controlling behavior? Threats? Restorative justice does not imply returning to past circumstances especially when there is a history of abuse or trauma or a long pattern of wrongdoing. In this case, the relationship instead needs to be transformed.

In the same way, here at University Prep Schools, we are not interested in overlooking the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the racial injustice, and the tension between community members that feels to be at an all-time high. Incidents at the beginning of the school year mirrored similar behavior of the disruptive chaos that had been reported at major league sporting events. We recognized that these isolated incidents were all the cries of relational brokenness that needed to be intentionally addressed and remedied. Our answer was the Restoring U Campaign. It was important to us that we as a school community found a new way of being and doing with one another that fostered a will to good, a protective concern,  and conviction to restore our community. 

In closing, “Restorative Justice in Education is an invitation to create educational cultures that emphasize social engagement rather than social control. The starting point in ‘how we are when we are together’ is relationships rather than rules, people rather than policies, honoring capacity rather than evaluating ability, creating meaning rather than imposing knowledge, asking rather than telling, and well-being rather than merit-based success. This does not imply that rules, policies, evaluation, telling, and success are irrelevant; it simply means that these serve the needs of people living within the community, not the other way around. Restorative Practices holds the possibility for changing learning factories into gardens where seeds are planted and growth is nurtured.” (Citation: Zehr, Howard. The Little Book of Restorative Justice. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2002.)


Brandon Lane is a Philadelphia native with over 10 years of experience as an educator in the Philadelphia and Detroit public and charter school systems. He is a graduate of Morehouse College and a member of the cohort of Philadelphia Teaching Fellows. Brandon joined the U Prep Community in 2017 as a high school Science teacher, and advanced to the Senior Director of K-12 Science Instruction. He currently serves as the Director of Restorative Practices for the U Prep Schools network. 

Brandon Lane, Director of Restorative Practices, U Prep Schools