The single most pervasive myth about learning how to read is that a struggling reader will eventually “catch on.”
In fact, my most common client is a mid-second grade student who cannot read at all. All along the parent was told, “Don’t worry, they’ll catch on.” The parent waited patiently year after year and finally realized their child will enter third grade without the ability to read.
Learning to Read is Not Natural
Reading is not developmental. Everyone is ready to learn how to read at six (ie to learn letter sounds) right when the ability to be phonemically aware is formed. If a child is not learning how to read, then the curriculum is not working for them. There is no magic developmental phase a struggling reader will go through in which he will suddenly “pick up on” reading.
As a parent, I understand the tendency to stay calm and wait for your child to do what his peers have already done. This calmness has served you well through many parental phases, including when your child learned how to sit, crawl, stand, walk, run and talk—all of which actually are developmental since these “milestones” are in the fabric of our DNA. Learning how to read, however, is not in our DNA; it’s something us humans have engineered ourselves to do only within the last few thousand years, a blink of an eye in our evolutionary history.
Dyslexic Students Need Systematic Phonics Instruction
Reading is so unnatural in fact, that we simply have no “reading” area in our brain; we create new networks using archaic structures to form our ability to decode. The French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene calls this “neuronal recycling”—that is we transform structures for a new purpose. The idea that reading is developmental denies how deliberate, formal, and systematic reading instruction must be to create a reading brain.
Reading is so unnatural that throughout most of human history there was only one man in town who could read—and that man was a poor reader—the preacher who very laboriously read religious texts out-loud to his congregation. As writing and spelling evolved, still, people did not spontaneously “pick up on” reading. Even with years of school, up to 20-30% of the population still will not learn how to read without a unique curriculum designed to reach dyslexic students.
Reading is an act of great will and effort on behalf of the child. Some children need specialized instruction designed for dyslexic students. If your child falls behind, don’t assume they will suddenly “catch on.” Keep close watch on their reading progress, and get help if they fall too far behind.