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How Do Children Learn to Read?

The skill of reading is special - and often difficult to acquire. The fact that anyone learns how to read is something of a miracle. Learning to read is very different from learning to speak; in the development of human history, speaking precedes reading by thousands of years.

The subconscious path of written language

The human brain is wired for language (Chomsky, Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory, 1955, 75), but language acquisition does not happen without models, the way motor development does. It must be nurtured through contact with human language models. Children who do not receive models of language in early childhood will have varying deficiencies of language later in life.

Spoken language develops both spontaneously and subconsciously. A 2-year old couldn't be taught sentence structure and grammar rules now matter how hard someone might try. As Maria Montessori said, "The only language men ever speak perfectly is the one they learn in babyhood, when no one can teach them anything!" Reading is different. It must be actively taught and consciously learned. If it's not actively taught, then even a life spent surrounded by the printed word will not teach someone who is illiterate how to read.

When a middle aged person finally admits that they don't know how to read, they must start at the beginning just like a child does, learning sounds and sounding out words. Imagine how many printed words - street signs, store names, words on TV - they have seen in a lifetime. But they were never able to simply "pick up" the skill of reading the way a child learns to speak.

The difference between spoken and written language

There are two very different paths for learning a language: the subconscious acquisition of spoken language and the conscious acquisition of written language. Children must be able to subconsciously acquire spoken language; if children lacked this ability, nothing effective would have ever been done by humans. There would be no civilization.

Spoken language and written language are obviously related. One of the clearest examples of this is in the acquisition of vocabulary words. Language experts tell us that in everyday conversation, we use about 5,000 words on a regular basis, and another 10,000 a little less frequently. That gives us about 15,000 "common words", as they are called.

That leaves tens of thousands of other English words. How are they learned? The more complex a text is, whether it's a book, newspaper or magazine article, or webpage, the greater the percentage of "rare words" they contain; that is, words that fall outside of the 15,000 common words. Clearly, the more you read, the bigger your spoken vocabulary.

Another way that speaking and reading are connected is through decoding. Decoding is the process of pulling apart the sounds that each letter makes, and then putting them back together to make a word. It's much easier for a child to sound out a word on the page that they've already heard in conversation, than a completely new word. There's less information to process since the meaning and pronunciation of the word are already known. A child who has heard more words spoken is at an advantage when learning to read.

How does the brain process written words?

Reading is a difficult, multi-step task that must be actively taught and learned. Recent technological breakthroughs have helped to open up what was previously unknown to researchers in terms of how the brain learns to process reading. Beginning readers use one section of the brain to link the phonetic sounds to the appropriate letter, and a second section to turn them into words. It's a process that takes some time, which is why children learning to read often read very slowly. But then something interesting starts to happen: a third section of the brain begins to take over.

This section helps the child build a permanent registry of familiar words that can be recognized on sight. This enables them to read by seeing the whole word instead of stopping to sound it out every time they see it. Reading eventually becomes effortless. Children with dyslexia or other learning disabilities are unable to make a smooth transition between seeing words as individual sounds and seeing them as a complete word. The different sections of the brain - the one that recognize phonetic sounds, the one that sees them as words, and the one that remembers the words - do not work together fluidly.

Montessori philosophy and reading

Maria Montessori recognized that children as young as two had an interest in written letters. The "sandpaper letters" (letters cut out of sandpaper that can be traced) were developed to take advantage of this sensitive period. Montessori had an advantage when teaching in Italy; Italian is mostly phonetic. Once the basic phonetic sounds were learned, reading proceeded quite easily.

Girl Traces Sandpaper Letters

Montessori also observed that writing usually proceeded reading. When a child writes, all they need to do is turn sounds into letters. When a child reads, they need to pull apart the letters, turn them into phonetic sounds, and put them back together to make a word. It's a more complicated process. Children in Montessori classrooms often write stories with the movable alphabet long before they can read.

Different approaches to reading

Reading and writing in English provides different challenges. The latest research, from a study done by the National Reading Panel (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2001) concluded that children must be taught phonetic sounds explicitly in order to learn to read.

In conclusion

It's important as educators and parents (and both), that we understand the mechanics behind the skill of learning a written language. The more we understand, the better able we are when there are problems that need to be addressed. A child who is struggling in reading will not improve with time. They need direct, quick intervention.

For more information on reading disabilities, along with links to specific programs that deal with dyslexia, please read this post: Dealing with Dyslexia.

Photo courtesy Frida Azari.

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