How Children Learn to Read

Updated: Apr 8

There is a lot of literature (both good and bad) on the topic of teaching young children how to read. One popular camp claims that the best way to teach reading is through structured phonics instruction, lots of drill practice, and often a lot of boredom. Some kids thrive with this style of education, but many will eventually grow to hate reading. Another camp claims the polar opposite: that children need no instruction in reading whatsoever. They believe that a child will learn to read on their own, naturally; that formal instruction will actually hinder their curiosity and motivation to read on their own. A literature rich environment along with enthusiastic and supportive caregivers is all that a child needs to become a fluent reader.

Again, this works with some children, but more often than not, it has been my experience that most children do best with a happy medium between the two extremes. The bottom line is: what is most effective usually comes down to the child, their personality, and the environment they live in.

This section was designed to help you navigate teaching your child to read. Information overload along with conflicting ideologies around the best way to learn to read abound online, and in your local bookstore. I am here to offer some clarity, and make the whole experience as simple and as pleasant as possible. We all want to do the absolute best for our children. We must get it right, or we fear that we’ll screw our children up irreparably. With all that’s out there on the subject, it is easy for a parent to lose one’s mind. The pressure is real! However, stressing out is unnecessary. Just the fact that you are reading this guide makes the likelihood of failure quite low. Take some solace in that and let’s move on to the meat and potatoes.

What does the research say?

Let me distill it in very simple terms; essentially, children learn to read and develop a love for reading through the act of reading. The more they read, the better. A combination of reading things repeatedly with access to a wide variety of books is ideal and has shown to have a major impact on literacy and a lifelong love of reading.

Parents are instrumental in shaping their children’s reading skills. When parents model and foster a love and value reading, it rubs off on the children. Read yourself so your children see your reading. Read aloud to them to expose them to the joys of reading. When they are able, let them read to you. In most cases, this is tried and true recipe for growing readers.

That sounds too simple you say?

That is true, learning to read is not rocket science. It is relatively simple, but simple does not make for a sustainable and lucrative business model. Like fitness and nutrition industries, the education industry (curriculum and textbook publishers, teacher training programs, and the like) has made many very simple concepts very complicated and confusing in order to maintain a multi-billion dollar curriculum industry.

But wait there’s more!

In addition to reading and reading often, the research also supports a combination of isolated instruction in phonics and sight words when children are also immersed in a literature rich environment as described above. Without it, isolated phonics and sight words practice is not shown to contribute to reading fluency alone, and why would they? The two go hand in hand.

Isolated concepts in general are difficult to put into context, and are by themselves, usually irrelevant. When content is irrelevant and out of context, it’s boring and unmemorable. Children can’t apply the concepts if they aren’t exposed to their context (i.e. through a lot of reading).

The takeaway: Read, read and read some more. Use isolated literacy strategies like phonics and sight word instruction to supplement.

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