Carter was excited to learn to read. He thought learning to read was an exciting venture, one that would finally help him decode all the books his older brother owned. When he entered kindergarten, he was bubbly and cheerful. Few things could get him down. During reading instruction, he diligently read the books over and over. He did as he was told: he memorized stories.
Yet, by the end of the year, his struggles began to surface. His skills weren’t transferable at all. When he looked at a new story he couldn’t decode nearly any of the words. To his surprise, he couldn’t read a single word in his older brother’s books. He was embarrassed and he tried desperately to hide his difficulties. He dreaded reading time at school. Kids like Carter are far from alone.
Learning to read is really hard
Why do we expect so many kids to “just get” reading. Cognitive science has shown that learning to read causes profound changes in the brain, creating a new network that previously didn’t exist. Cognitive science research has also shown that kids learn best when given a systematic, explicit phonics approach.
Experts like us tend to view reading as very easy. For us, it’s almost like breathing. We breeze through text and sometimes we read things we didn’t intend to. Reading, for us experts, has become automatic. Therefore, it’s easy to assume that learning to read doesn’t require any sort of step-by-step instruction.
The Curse of Knowledge
As expert readers, we have the curse of knowledge. This term comes from the field of Cognitive Science. Essentially, the curse of knowledge means that you’ve become so automatic and so familiar with a topic that you cease to understand the minutiae of your own skill. In other words, a skill has become so automatic, you can’t teach it anymore.
You can be an expert reader and not know at all how to teach reading. The ability to read and teach reading are two very different skills. Yet, so many of us think of them as one. The curse of knowledge also shows why so many experts are terrible teachers.
Think of that chemistry professor you had in college who was incapable of explaining things to beginners. He published in top Chemistry journals. Yet, students in his class were all equally confused. He had the curse of knowledge. He understood the subject so well that he struggled to break down the subject into sub-parts and teach those parts systematically.
Teaching reading requires setting aside the belief that all kids will just “get it.”
We find the curse of knowledge in teaching reading all the time. We’re all experts in reading and therefore we all suffer from the curse of knowledge when we try and teach our children to read. We assume, all too readily, that learning to read is easy. Then, we assume also that teaching reading is easy.
Cognitive science is an amazing field. In my opinion, it’s surpassed the field of education in many ways. We can look to Cognitive Science to figure out how to teach children to read. We can also look to Cognitive Science to understand why so many of us expect kids to “just get” reading. The curse of knowledge explains why so many kids struggle.
The curse of knowledge has been well-documented. We consistently and predictably fail to convey information that we know intimately. This is why teachers need years of instruction to help them teach kids how to read. Teaching reading is an actual skill. Once you’ve acquired the skill, you’ve (mostly) overcome the curse of knowledge. You begin to view words differently. When you hear a student read, you can pinpoint the source of his difficulty.
Overcoming the curse of knowledge to teach reading
You’ve probably come across the curse of knowledge if you’ve ever pursued a hobby. Imagine that you want to learn how to play the violin. You have a friend who is an expert musician. He plays in a band and he’s usually the star. You tell him you want to learn how to play. He’s excited to give you a mini-lesson. He does a complicated motion on his violin and enthusiastically says, “now your turn!”
You’re dumbfounded. How am I supposed to do that? I’m a beginner, you think. You don’t tell your friend that he’s a terrible teacher. Instead, you hire someone who is familiar with step-by-step instruction and has somehow overcome the curse of knowledge. In this way, you finally learn over the course of years how to play the violin.
Beginners need leveled material
When we teach kids to read, we often mistakenly give them tasks that aren’t really doable (considering their current skill level). As a result, kids can look at you with frustration and a lost look in their eyes. Sometimes educators are surprised when they see that their student needs to painstakingly go through the sounds. Even linking sounds is hard.
When we watch a beginning reader, we should think about how difficult learning to read really is. Our brains want to tell us learning to reading is easy. But we have to set this assumption aside. Learning to read is actually very hard. It’s easy for us because we’ve had decades of daily practice.
Reid Lyon claims learning to read is the most difficult thing we ever ask kids to do in school. It certainly is the most high stakes thing we ever learn. Breaking the code requires four years of diligent, daily practice.
After that, kids still are not fully literate. At that point, they need to understand how to actually comprehend what they read and learn new vocabulary words and adjust to complicated syntax. To become an expert reader, then, you need at least over a decade of instruction. When we think of these long timelines, it becomes more difficult to write learning to read off as easy.
If you’re interested in overcoming the curse of knowledge to teach reading, you can check out how to teach letter sounds. Also, Reading Elephant offers a systematic phonics library that teaches kids to read in a step-by-step manner.