Nearly everyone we know can read. We assume reading comes naturally. When we send our children off to school, we assume they will learn to read with ease, and we hardly give any thought at all to the idea that learning to read might prove difficult. Most of us even think early reading instruction is the easiest journey of education altogether, and the “hard stuff” like Calculus and Shakespeare will come later. Yet, writing was a human invention much like the printing press, the car and the computer. Since writing was a human invention, so too was reading. We were never born to read. We were born to walk, grow, see, hear, love, communicate verbally and with facial expressions, and much more. But read? No.
Early reading instruction matters. Many kids simply won’t learn to read without systematic phonics instruction.
There is no “reading area” in our brains. Instead, we repurpose cognitive real estate that was designed for something else. The object and facial recognition area, for example, turns into an area that allows us to recognize letters. What once allowed us to recognize Aunt Ava later allows us to recognize that “u” is different from “n.” There’s a neuronal network that forms when schoolchildren painstakingly learn to read—a network that wouldn’t have existed if we remained illiterate. Even at age 30, 40, 50 and beyond, the reading neuronal network does not develop on its own. Schoolchildren rely on educators to teach them sound-symbol correlations. Beginners connect cognitive areas that were previously unconnected, and they slowly, across years, learn to decode.
But what happens when this process goes wrong? Currently, about 30% of schoolchildren struggle to learn to read. Their parents are hidden in shame and society is quick to blame them. The struggling readers begin to feel they must be stupid. Yet, when you look closely, you see that the parents and children are faultless. Instead, the education system is not teaching reading in accordance with the reading science. How can there be a science of reading? There’s a science of medicine, a science of engineering… etc.
Some might think saying there’s a science of reading is like saying there’s a science of art. We like to equate reading with mysticism, as we are whisked away with the idea that a remarkable chemical reaction spontaneously happens, and poof, like a bolt of intellectual lightening, we can read. But reading happens in the brain. And there is a correct way to decode (“Twig” does not say “worm” for example). Therefore, reading is under a branch of science: Cognitive Science. And these scientists have done extensive research on best practices in reading instruction. They have found that there is a science of reading, a way to teach schoolchildren so everyone can learn to read (even the typically struggling 30%). Cognitive Scientists have written amply on the topic of how kids learn to read. However, nearly all of their findings are ignored in the classroom.
Kids learn best with systematic phonics instruction in which sounds are introduced gradually and explicitly.
If you are wondering how to best teach your child to read, you can check out Emily Hanford’s Hard Words podcast. It explains a lot.
Reading Elephant offers systematic printable phonics books that gradually introduce phonics sounds. In early reading instruction, many kids need simple books that encourage sound-by-sound decoding.