Learning to Read: What Parents Need to Know

Learning to read is a journey. Some children pave the path to becoming bookworms with ease, while others struggle to find their footing from day one. No child’s learning journey is quite the same, but there is a knowledge base all parents can equip themselves with to help their children become successful readers. The best thing parents can do is stay in the know about key milestones, markers, and misconceptions related to childhood reading.

Here are 10 facts you need to know about learning to read:

1. Reading to your child is important for developing vocabulary and listening comprehension. However, it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for learning to read. Some, if not the majority of, children learn to read without a lot of direct instruction. These children, in their developmental history, learned alphabet letters quickly, showed an early interest in books, and learned some basic letter and sound connections fairly quickly.

2. These same children also show facility in ‘playing with sounds.’ For example, they can recognize and produce rhyming words. They can tell you at least the first sounds in easy words like ‘dog.’ They may be able to tell you, clearly and distinctly, each of the three sounds in that word. By the end of Kindergarten, they are ‘ready’ to learn to read. Some of them may already be reading fluently.

3. In early Grade 1, this group of children (the ‘ready ones’), along with the rest of the class, are given some exposure to phonics. It’s a breeze for them! They pick up the concept quickly and the next thing you know, they are ‘sounding out’ a lot of words.

4. Most children are exposed to a list of ‘sight words,’ those that supposedly must be memorized by looking at the letters. This list works easily for the ‘ready’ group because they can already ‘sound out’ many of them and have even developed some ability to deal with the ‘exception words.’

5. So what’s the hallmark of a strong reader? It’s the ability to look at an unfamiliar word, sound it out a few times, and then remember it. For struggling readers, the opposite is true. Even after being exposed hundreds of times, struggling readers still have trouble remembering the word.

6. It’s an established fact: The ability to quickly recognize and sound out a word (and spell it) is not related to intelligence; many - even ‘gifted’ - children still struggle with word recognition and spelling.

7. Difficulty with reading is a common problem with long-term negative impacts. The impact on a child’s confidence and self-esteem is often immediate but may be incorrectly attributed to a lack of effort or a lack of interest in reading. In most cases, it’s the other way around. Children ‘won’t’ read because they ‘can’t’ read.

8. Learning to read depends on remediating those elements with direct instruction. It is not a matter of finding the student’s ‘learning style.’

9. The right approach usually involves direct teaching of the missing elements of the process. These components have to be understood and clearly identified by professionals who have an in-depth understanding and plenty of experience with the issues.

10. On a brighter note: All children want to learn to read! The ones who ‘can’t’ just need the right approach.

Dr. Steve Truch, founding director of The Reading Foundation, readingfoundation.com, is a thought-leader in learning and literacy that has worked as both a teacher and a school psychologist. Find him at steve@readingfoundation.com

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