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Learning to read

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Subject: Reading education in the United States, Reading (process), Whole language, Logographic cues, Braille
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Learning to read

Learning to read is the process of acquiring the skills necessary for reading; that is, the ability to acquire meaning from print. Learning to read is paradoxical in some ways. For an adult who is a fairly good reader, reading seems like a simple, effortless and automatic skill[1] but the process builds on cognitive, linguistic, and social skills developed in the years before reading typically begins.[1]

Writing systems

Writing systems are distinguished from other possible symbolic communication systems in that one must usually understand something of the associated spoken language to comprehend the text.[2] Once established, writing systems on the whole change more slowly than their spoken counterparts, and often preserve features and expressions which are no longer current in the spoken language. The great benefit of writing systems is their ability to maintain a persistent record of information expressed in a language, which can be retrieved independently of the initial act of formulation.[2]

Acquiring reading

A child's ability to learn to read, known as reading readiness, begins in infancy, as the child begins attending to the speech signals in their environment and begins producing spoken language.[3] Children make some use of all the material that they are presented with, including every perception, concept and word that they come in contact with; thus the environment in which a child develops affects the child's ability to learn to read.[3] The amount of time that a child spends together with parents or other important caregivers while listening to them read is a good predictor of the level of reading that the child will attain later in life.[3][4] As a child sits with a caregiver, looking at pictures and listening to stories, he or she will slowly learn that all the different lines on each page make different symbols and then that together these symbols refer to words.[3] Taking time to read to children is the most important precursor to a child's development of reading.[3] Preschool-aged children with limited exposure to books and reading in their home, including limited experience of being read to, are at risk of reading difficulties.[3] For example, these children tend to have less exposure to literary phrases, such as "Once upon a time",[3] and have smaller vocabularies,[5][6] both factors that affect the ability to read by limiting comprehension of text. The environment in which a child lives may also impact their ability to acquire reading skills. Children who are regularly exposed to chronic environmental noise pollution, such as highway traffic noise, have been known to show decreased ability to discriminate between phonemes as well as lower reading scores on standardized tests.[7]

Thus, the ideal process of what is called emergent or early literacy[3] begins in the relationship between hearing spoken language, seeing written language and feeling loved. The positive feeling that arises from spending time with books in a loving context provides a strong foundation and intrinsic motivation for the long and cognitively challenging process of learning to read.[3] However, reading to children and ensuring exposure to many books is not enough to prepare them for reading.[8] Another critical skill is the ability to name letters or characters.[8]

Age to introduce literacy learning

Some scholars favor a developmental approach in which formal instruction on reading begins around the age of 6 or 7, while others argue for literacy instruction to occur in pre-school and kindergarten classrooms, so long as non-academic activities take place as well.[9]

In a discussion on academic kindergartens, professor of child development David Elkind has argued that since "there is no solid research demonstrating that early academic training is superior to (or worse than) the more traditional, hands-on model of early education" educators should defer to developmental approaches that provide young children with ample time and opportunity to explore the natural world on their own terms.[10] Elkind emphasized the principle that "early education must start with the child, not with the subject matter to be taught."[10]

The PISA 2007 OECD data from 54 countries demonstrates "no association between school entry age ... and reading achievement at age 15".[11] A German study of 50 kindergartens compared children who, at age 5, had spent a year either "academically focused", or "play-arts focused" and found that in time the two groups became inseparable in reading skill.[12] Suggate concludes that the effects of early reading are like "watering a garden before a rainstorm; the earlier watering is rendered undetectable by the rainstorm, the watering wastes precious water, and the watering detracts the gardener from other important preparatory groundwork."[11]

Reading development

There are five stages of reading development. They are the emerging pre-reader, novice reader, decoding reader, fluent comprehending reader, and the expert reader. It is normal that children will move through these different stages at different rates.

Emerging pre-reader

The emerging pre-reader stage, also known as reading readiness, happens when a young child sits and listens to someone read to them. Emerging reading takes many years of language experience, along with the increase of both conceptual and social development.[13] Showing that this process starts early in a child's life is the fact that children typically produce their first few words before their first birthday.[1] This emerging pre-reader stage usually lasts for the first five years of a child's life.[13]

During the emerging pre-reader stage children will often "read" books and stories. They will tell the story as they have memorized it and turn the pages appropriately. They call what they are doing "reading" since they typically don't yet understand that their parents or caregivers are decoding written words. To them, they are doing what they think their parents or caregivers are doing when reciting the story.

One group of researchers in the United States found in the late 1990s and 2000s that the traditional way of reading to children made little difference in their later ability to read, and hypothesized this was because children spend relatively little time actually looking at the text. They found that simple exercises during reading which directed children to pay attention to and think about letters and words made a significant difference in early reading progress.[14]

Novice reader

Reading time at a primary school in rural Laos. Learning to read poses different challenges in Laos compared to English-speaking countries. The written language follows clear phonetic rules, so the mechanics of reading are easier than with English. However, children learn from a teacher with a blackboard, and get little or no opportunity to improve their reading skills by reading for pleasure. Most schools have no library and no books except textbooks; even fourth-grade students often cannot read a full sentence. The daily reading period shown here uses books provided by Big Brother Mouse, which promotes reading in Lao schools and villages.
The next step in the learning to read process is the novice reading stage[13] also known as selective association.[1] This begins with the child learning to decode print and understanding the meaning of what has been decoded.[13] To do this, the child must first figure out the Alphabetic principle and master it in only a few years.[13] Most children know that the words on a page in a book mean something, but do not readily understand how the letters code the meaning. They know that these words are made of the sounds of their particular language, and that letters convey these sounds. Novice readers learn to hear and manipulate the smaller sounds into syllables and words.[13] If a child is able to master this skill, called phonological awareness, it is one of the best predictors of a child's success in learning to read.[13] One way that you can teach children to become more aware of sounds within words is through such things as nursery rhymes that enhance the child's ability to hear and divide the structure of words. Another way to teach a child to read is through little "games" in which the sounds in word are either clapped, written or danced to a beat.[13] A novice reader will also memorize the most common letter patterns in their own language and most of the frequent words that will not necessarily follow the phonological rules such as in English the words "have" and "who".[13] It is in this stage that children will develop a vocabulary of words that is between 2,500 to 5,000 words.[1] Children's vocabularies continue to grow as they enter elementary school, since they will continue to learn new words at a rate of about seven words per day.[1] This shows that at this stage in reading the best piece of advice is to just practice, practice, practice or read, read more, and read again.

Decoding reader

The transition from the novice reader stage to the decoding stage is marked by the absence of painful pronunciations and in its place the sounds of a smoother, more confident reader.[13] In this phase of learning to read, the reader adds at least 3,000 words to what they can decode. For example, in the English language, that readers need to now learn the variations of the vowel-based rhymes and vowel pairs. It is essential during this stage, if a reader is going to become fluent, the reader needs to acquire a sufficient repertoire of the letter-patterns and vowel-pairs that help to make up words that go beyond the basic level.The faster a child can see that the word "together" is "to-ge-ther", the faster the reader will become a more fluent reader.[13] As children move forward with their reading skills, they learn a great deal about what is really inside a word; the stem, roots, prefixes and suffixes that make up morphemes of the language.[13] By this stage, children already know about the common bound morphemes such as "s" and "ed" because these are attached to many words. Decoding readers become exposed to many types of morphemes such as prefixes and suffixes, and it is when they learn to read these as "sight chunks" that their reading and their understanding will speed up dramatically. Being able to read at a fluent level is not only about how fast a child can read, but it is a matter of being able to utilize all the special knowledge that they have about a word—its letters, letter patterns, meanings, grammatical functions, roots, and endings—fast enough that they have time to think and comprehend what they are seeing. The point of becoming a proficient reader is to fluently read and comprehend what had just been read. Decoding readers are just beginning to understand and learn how to use their expanding knowledge of language and their growing powers of inference to figure out what they are really reading.[13]

In the beginning of the decoding stage a child will often be devoting so much mental capacity to the process of decoding that they will have no comprehension of the meaning of the words being read. This is most likely if the text being read is at or above their skill level. It is nevertheless an important stage. Such decoding practice allows the child to improve their decoding skills with the ultimate goal of becoming automatic as it is for most skilled readers with most text they encounter. Like every skill, the more you do it the better you get. Though comprehension may be poor at this stage, it is nevertheless an important step towards comprehension. As the skill of decoding improves and the more automatic it becomes the more the child has mental capacity to devote to comprehension. Therefore, understanding of what is being read increases.

It is also in the decoding phase that the child will learn to go beyond what is said in writing in the story to get the underlying meaning of what the story is really about. In the decoding stage a child also learns that if a sentence or paragraph is not understood, re-reading it a second or third time may be necessary in order to fully understand the passage. Knowing when a text needs to be re-read is a very important skill and can improve comprehension greatly.[13]

Fluent, comprehending reader

The next stage in reading development is the fluent, comprehending reader stage, in which children shift from learning to read, to reading to learn. In this stage the reader builds up a substantial background of knowledge of spelling.[13] It is during this time in a reader's development that teachers and parents can be tricked by fluent-sounding reading into thinking that a child understands everything that he or she is reading. As the content of what they are able to read becomes more demanding, good readers will develop knowledge of figurative language and irony which helps them to discover new meanings in the text. This will assist them to understand the meaning of what they are reading beyond what is written on the page. While learning to read, one of the most powerful moments is when fluent comprehending readers learn to enter into the lives of imagined heroes and heroines.[13] Examples of books where these imagined heroes and heroines could be found in include Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Huckleberry Finn. The comprehension process grows while reading books like these, where children learn how to connect prior knowledge, predict good or bad consequences, draw inferences from every danger-filled corner, monitor gaps in their understanding, and interpret how each new clue, revelation, or added piece of knowledge changes what they know. In learning these new skills, they learn to unpeel the layers of meaning in a word, a phrase or a thought.[13]

There are two ways in which increasing fluency can be supported. They include explicit instruction in comprehension by a child's teacher and the child's own desire to read. Engaging in conversation about what they are reading allows the beginning reader to ask critical questions, facilitating a better understanding of the central meaning.[13]

At the end of this stage, before the reader becomes an expert reader, many processes are starting to become automatic. This increasing automaticity frees up cognitive resources so that the reader can reflect on meaning. With the decoding process almost automatic by this point, the brain learns to integrate more metaphorical, inferential, analogical, background and experiential knowledge with every newly won millisecond. This stage in learning to read often will last until early adulthood.[15]

Expert reader

The final stage in learning to read, is the expert stage. When a reader is at this stage of reading, it will usually only take them one half second to read almost any word.[16] The degree to which expert reading will change over the course of an adult's life depends on what a person reads and how much they read.[17] As a person matures, life experiences as well as the cognitive process of reading text shapes reading comprehension. It is this interpretive response that adds depth to reading and will often take the reader in a new direction from where the author intended.[17]

Methods of teaching reading

Alphabetic languages

Educators have argued for years about which method is best to teach reading to children. For the English language, there are two major methods, Phonics and Whole Language, within which there are subtypes Synthetic Phonics and Sight word respectively. Each method is employed at differing rates depending on the country and the specific school division. Some educators are beginning to use the two methods in conjunction to maximize the benefits of both methods.[1] Phonics is a teaching method that stresses character-sound correspondences,[18][19][20] specific rules and their use in reading and spelling.[1][21] This helps beginning readers understand how characters are linked to sounds (phonemes), patterns of letter-sound correspondences and spelling in English, and how to apply this knowledge when they read to sound out words. Phonics teachers present the spellings for different sounds in a specific order, introducing the simplest (or most useful) patterns early on; these patterns are then practiced.[1] A disadvantage to phonics is that in some languages like English, complex letter-sound correspondences can cause confusion for beginning readers.[22]

Traditional phonics instruction has marked benefits. Early reading often involves significant expansion of a child's mental lexicon, which includes all the words the child has been exposed to and their meanings. By focusing on the principle of linking specific sounds and characters, the child has the ability to recognize new words and derive meaning from them. Being able to adapt what they know about language to new words they experience is crucial to expanding their mental lexicon; this allows for productive reading that is the ability to read new words.[1][22] It also produces higher achievement for beginning readers and the difference is the greatest for those at risk of failing to learn to read. While some children are able to infer these rules on their own, some need explicit instructions on phonics rules. Overall, children who are directly taught phonics are better at reading, spelling and comprehension.[1]

Traditional phonics instruction can also have the unintended consequence of promoting dysfluency. The difficulty lies in the coarticulated nature of speech; speech sounds are overlapping,[23] while print is discrete and sequential. This can be appreciated if one shapes the mouth in position to begin to produce the word cat compared to the word cot. The initial hard c is colored by the subsequent vowel even before speech begins, i.e., the smiling position as one prepares to say cat, and the more limp position as one prepares to say cot. As early readers work from left to right, beginning with the onset consonant, they typically do not yet know the vowel with which it must be coarticulated. The vowel sound itself cannot be known until the remaining rime (the portion of the syllable beginning with the vowel and extending to its end: e.g. ight in right) is fully encountered. For these reasons, teaching reading through orientation to rime first and then adding the onset (ought-bought) can be helpful in promoting fluency through supporting the phonological problems of coarticulation. Emphasis on the rime also supports the development of an intuitive, and therefore more fluent, awareness of orthographic patterns.[24]

Synthetic Phonics is a method that is endorsed by the governments of the United Kingdom,[25] Australia[26] and Scotland.[27] It also has considerable support in the U.S.A.[28] and Canada.[29] In Synthetic Phonics, the student first learns to say the sounds (phonemes) that are associated with the character(graphemes) in isolation before the sounds are "synthesized" or blended together to make a word. (e.g. /a/, /k/, /t/.) Then, when reading a word, he learns to say each sound in the word (e.g. /k/ - /a/ - /t/); and to "blend" these sounds into a pronunciation of the word (e.g. "cat").

Synthetic phonics does not teach whole words as shapes; and does not involve guessing at words from context, picture and initial letter clues.

There are other types of phonics, such as Analytical phonics, that differ in their approach based on how a "chunk" within the word is defined (i.e. individual phonemes, syllables, or non-blended units).

Whole Language is widely used in the U.S.A. and Canada. It is a reading and learning method that trains students to focus on words, sentences and paragraphs as a whole rather than letters. This method aims to make reading fun and keep children motivated, which is beneficial because learning to read depends heavily on what the student does and not the teacher.[1] While the child is typically very engaged in this method, many children struggle to infer the specific rules of the language on their own, which causes the child's decoding and spelling to suffer during development.[30]

One subtype is Sight word, which is sometimes called the "look-say" method. A sight vocabulary of 50-100 words is first memorized[22] and subsequent words are learned as wholes, often by seeing them used repeatedly in the context of a story.[1] It tells children to find meaning by guessing, by recognizing whole words they have memorized, by looking at the pictures, and by creating a context based on surrounding words. It encourages students to "construct their own meaning" (with guidance from peers and facilitator of consensus process).[31] It relies heavily on the child's experience with language as a whole. The following are some features of the whole language philosophy:[32]

  • Children are expected to learn to read and write as they learned to talk, that is gradually, without a great deal of direct instruction.
  • Learning is emphasized more than teaching; it is assumed that the children will learn to read and write, and the teacher facilitates that growth.
  • Children read and write every day in a variety of situations.
  • Reading, writing, and spoken language are not considered separate components of the curriculum or merely ends in themselves; rather they permeate everything the children are doing.
  • There is no division between first learning to read and later reading to learn. (adapted from Weaver, C. 1990)

Which style use in teaching reading has divided educators for years. It is now known that using the two approaches together is more powerful than either program alone.[1] The technical skills learned through phonics are important for many children when learning to read, spell, and general language comprehension and engagement of children in the whole-language approach is also important to keep the children motivated and excited to learn. Many teachers and schools acknowledge this and say that they use multiple methods to teach children to read.

Logographic languages

Languages such as Chinese and Japanese are normally written in logograms (hanzi and kanji, respectively), which represent a whole word or morpheme with a single character. There are a large number of characters, and the sound that each makes must be learned directly or from other characters which contain "hints" in them, such as, in Japanese, 民's on-reading being min and 眠 which shares the same on-reading as 民, that being min. In the same way whereas the right part contains the characters pronunciation, 員's on-reading is in and 韻 has exactly the same on, however this is not true for all characters. Kun readings, on the other hand, have to be learned and memorised as there is no way to tell from each character.

Ruby characters are used in textbooks to help children learn the sounds that each logogram makes. These are written in a smaller size, using an alphabetic or syllabic script. For example, hiragana is typically used in Japanese, and the pinyin romanization into Latin alphabet characters is used in Chinese.


The examples above spell the word kanji, which is made up of two kanji characters: 漢 (kan, written in hiragana as かん), and 字 (ji, written in hiragana as じ).

Textbooks are sometimes edited as a cohesive set across grades so that children will not encounter logograms they are not yet expected to have learned.

Skills required for proficient reading

According to the report by the US National Reading Panel (NRP) in 2000, [30][33] the skills required for proficient reading are phonemic awareness, fluency,[34] vocabulary,[35] and text comprehension.[28][36] More generally, proficient reading does not necessarily require phonemic awareness, as in Latin Alphabets, but an awareness of the individual parts of speech, which may also include the whole word (as in Chinese characters) or syllables (as in Japanese) as well as others depending on the writing system being employed. Other important skills are: rapid automatized naming (RAN),[37][38] a general understanding of the Orthography of the language,[13][39] and practice.[1][13]

  • Speech Awareness: The awareness of individual parts of speech as they apply to individual written characters is crucial for understanding reading (as defined by translating written characters into spoken language). Phonological awareness, which includes the manipulation of rhymes, syllables, and onsets and rimes, is most prevalent in Alphabetic systems.[40] The important part of speech depends on the Writing system employed.
  • Fluency: The ability to read orally with speed, accuracy, and vocal expression. The ability to read fluently is one of several critical factors necessary for reading comprehension. If a reader is not fluent, it may be difficult to remember what has been read and to relate the ideas expressed in the text to his or her background knowledge. This accuracy and automaticity of reading serves as a bridge between decoding and comprehension.[34]
  • Vocabulary: A critical aspect of reading comprehension is vocabulary development.[35] When a reader encounters an unfamiliar word in print and decodes it to derive its spoken pronunciation, the reader understands the word if it is in the reader's spoken vocabulary. Otherwise, the reader must derive the meaning of the word using another strategy, such as context. If the development of the child's vocabulary is impeded by things such as ear infections, that inhibit the child from hearing new words consistently, then the development of reading will also be impaired.[41]
  • Reading comprehension: The NRP describes comprehension as a complex cognitive process in which a reader intentionally and interactively engages with the text. Reading comprehension is heavily dependent on skilled word recognition and decoding,[42] oral reading fluency, a well-developed vocabulary and active engagement with the text.[36]
  • Rapid automatized naming: The ability to say quickly the names of letters, objects and colors predicts an individual's ability to read. This might be linked to the importance of quick retrieval of phonological representations from long-term memory in reading and the importance of object-naming circuits in the left cerebral hemisphere that are recruited to underpin a child's word-recognition abilities.[37][38]
  • Orthography describes or defines the set of symbols used in a language, and the rules about how to write these symbols. Orthographic Development proceeds in increasing complexity as a child learns to read. Some of the first things to be learnt are the orthographic conventions such as the direction of reading and that there are differing typefaces and capitalization for each symbol.[13] In general, this means that to read proficiently, the reader has to understand elements of the written language including hyphenation, capitalization, word breaks, emphasis, and punctuation.[39]
  • Practice: repeated exposure to print improves many aspects of learning to read and most importantly the knowledge of individual words. It increases the speed at which high frequency words are recognized which allows for increased Fluency in reading. It also supports orthographic development,[13] Reading comprehension and Vocabulary development.[1]

Reading difficulties

Difficulties in reading typically involve difficulty with one or more of the following: decoding, reading rate, reading fluency, or reading comprehension.


Difficulty with decoding is marked by having not acquired the phoneme-grapheme mapping concept. One specific disability characterized by poor decoding is dyslexia, defined as brain-based type of learning disability that specifically impairs a person's ability to read.[43] These individuals typically read at levels significantly lower than expected despite having normal intelligence. It can also be inherited in some families, and recent studies have identified a number of genes that may predispose an individual to developing dyslexia. Although the symptoms vary from person to person, common characteristics among people with dyslexia are difficulty with spelling, phonological processing (the manipulation of sounds), and/or rapid visual-verbal responding.[43] Adults, can have either developmental dyslexia[44][45][46][47] or Acquired Dyslexia which occurs after a brain injury, stroke[48][49] or dementia.[50][51]

Reading rate

Individuals with reading rate difficulties tend to have accurate word recognition and normal comprehension abilities, but the reading speed is below grade level.[52] Strategies such as guided reading, silent reading and modeled reading may help improve a reader's reading rate[33]

Reading fluency

Individuals with reading fluency difficulties fail to maintain a fluid, smooth pace when reading. Strategies used for overcoming reading rate difficulties are also useful in addressing reading fluency issues.[33]

Reading comprehension

Individuals with reading comprehension difficulties are commonly described as poor comprehenders. They have normal decoding skills as well as a fluid rate of reading, but have difficulty comprehending text when read. Increasing vocabulary knowledge, listening skills and teaching basic comprehension techniques may help facilitate better reading comprehension.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b
  9. ^
  10. ^ a b
  11. ^ a b Sebastian Suggate, "Watering the garden before a rainstorm: the case of early reading instruction" in Contemporary Debates in Childhood Education and Development, ed. Sebastian Suggate, Elaine Reese. pp. 181–190.
  12. ^
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ a b
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^ a b c
  23. ^
  24. ^ Cherkes-Julkowski, M. (2005). find the "vawel", Read the Rime, Learn to Read. Apache Junction, AZ: Surviving Education Guides.
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^ a b
  29. ^
  30. ^ a b
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^ a b c
  34. ^ a b
  35. ^ a b
  36. ^ a b
  37. ^ a b
  38. ^ a b
  39. ^ a b Coulmas, Florian. 1996. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 379.
  40. ^
  41. ^
  42. ^
  43. ^ a b
  44. ^
  45. ^
  46. ^
  47. ^
  48. ^ *
  49. ^
  50. ^
  51. ^
  52. ^

External links

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