The Science of How Children Learn to Read

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By Peggy Kaye, Director of Learning, Homer

Learning to read is one of the most difficult and important skills a child develops in the early years. It is also the skill that best predicts how well that child will do in school—and beyond—for years to come.

Consider this frightening fact: children who don’t read fluently by the 3rd grade are likely to fall further and further behind with each school year.

3rd grade is often called the “pivot” year because it marks the moment in a child’s education when she moves from learning to read to reading to learn.Without first mastering the foundational skills of reading, children can’t possibly grapple with a textbook chapter on photosynthesis or the cultural history of Ancient Rome.

There’s good news, though, for parents and children. Many accomplished researchers have spent years studying the best ways for children to learn read. As a result, we now have scientifically verifiable information on how this complicated process occurs. In my 36 years of teaching children to read and in my years of researching to write books on the subject, I’ve come up with points that can help parents understand and support children as they learn to read.

1. Children learn to read best through step-by-step teaching.

Learning to read doesn’t happen overnight or through random exposure to the ABCs. Children learn to read when they follow a clear, set path. That path begins with the introduction of a letter sound and its corresponding symbol. It moves then to reading and spelling words using one targeted sound in conjunction with other sounds a child has already mastered. Most children do not just “get” the relationship between sounds and letters through repeated exposure. They need to be taught little by little. While the best kindergarten teachers teach reading in this step-by-step manner, parents also can participate in their child’s learning journey by leaning on quality resources. We built Learn with Homer’s step-by-step reading program to make it easy for parents to help new readers. There is science behind our method, but kids see Homer as a fun game!

2. Learning to read does not happen naturally.

Walking and talking are developmental milestones in a child’s life. Learning to read is a milestone, too, but it doesn’t just “happen” like walking and talking do for most children. It requires direct instruction, repeated exposure to letter sounds, practice and a deep immersion in being read to aloud. Parents can support their children in learning to read through patient practice, attention to the lettered world around them, and most importantly, by snuggling up and reading, reading, reading!

3. Children learn best when learning to spell is combined with learning to read.

There are great advantages to helping children understand and appreciate the reversible nature of the alphabetic code. The process of blending or “gluing” individual sounds together in order to read a word also works in the other direction. Reverse the process and a child can first hear a word, then “unglue” its individual sounds, match those sounds to a letter, and spell the word. Parents can help their children work with letters in both directions by playing with the concepts of “gluing” and “ungluing” sounds. Learn with Homer’s games and lessons do just that, and our parents tools provide a large selection of worksheets and games to help when screentime is over.

4. Children should arrive in Kindergarten knowing the ABCs and the letter sounds.

Almost every child learns early on to sing the ABC song. But knowing the names of the letters of the alphabet is far less important than knowing the precise sounds those letter symbols represent. Phonological awareness (the ability to isolate and manipulate individual sounds within words) and phonics(the ability to connect letter sounds to a letter symbols in order to read and spell words) are the true building blocks of literacy. As often as you ask your child “what letter is that?” when passing a billboard or looking at the cover of a book, parents should ask “what sound matches that letter?” In a recent study by the former US Assistant Secretary of Education, Susan B. Neuman, Learn with Homer was shown to significantly increase children’s awareness of letter sounds and other Kindergarten readiness skills.

5. Learning to read requires time for review.

Just as no musician becomes a virtuoso without hours at the piano, no child becomes a strong reader without practice and review. Parents should make time and space for reading for pleasure as well as for reviewing important phonics skills.

6. Even preschool students can build reading comprehension skills.

A child needs to develop more than phonics and fluency skills to advance from learning to read to reading to learn. Parents don’t need to wait until the 3rd grade, when a child is able to read more sophisticated books, to introduce sophisticated ideas and vocabulary. A four-year old can’t possibly read stories as advanced as Aesop’s fables without help from a grownup, but he can understand their morals. Most five-year olds can’t read the word “camouflage,” but they can understand the concept when it is explained to them in the context of a science lesson on lions and other jungle animals. Exposing children to rich literature, non-fiction texts and the vocabulary that this kind of writing includes helps build an arsenal of knowledge and vocabulary that children can draw on later, when the best learners read between the lines to unlock meaning.

7. Fairy tales, folk tales and nursery rhymes aren’t just for entertainment.

There’s a reason Mother Goose has weathered the years and that the Brothers Grimm tales are still being adapted by Walt Disney. Nursery rhymes and fairy tales expose children to the important building blocks of literature: rhyme and rhythm, character development and story progression. Parents invest in their children’s future ability to understand how stories are constructed when they read classic children’s literature to their little ones.

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