On learning to read

Why children want to be able to read is not open for debate. It’s for the same reasons that they want to walk: to control their own destiny. It’s purely pragmatic; children understand that, when they know how to read, they are better able to navigate their environment successfully, just as they intuitively understand that walking is better than crawling or toddling.

on learning to readIt’s the how and when, not the why, that are the issues. Again, learning to walk has some lessons for us. Some children are early walkers, maybe because of temperament, the presence of siblings or body development. Children who are heavier, for example, shouldn’t be pushed to become toddlers and walkers early, because that can put their physical development at risk.

Encouragement is a huge part of learning to walk. Think back to your own children, if you have them, and I am sure you can conjure up images of you and your spouse smiling, clapping and otherwise encouraging your toddler. You were there to lend a hand or prevent a serious fall, of course, but you also tried to keep ‘hands off’ when you could.

And you are a walker yourself, meaning that you modeled the behavior for your child.

Learning to read follows that pattern. Encouragement, modeling, timing are all part of the recipe.

But there’s one other essential ingredient—knowing something about how to teach reading—because, unlike walking, reading is not instinctive. At bottom, it’s an unnatural act, albeit a vital skill.

Two things brought this to mind. The first is the comprehensive report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Learning to Read/Reading to Learn.” That report, which came out earlier this year, is subtitled “Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of the Third Grade Matters.” It’s a wake up call that traces our status as ‘dropout nation’ back to the elementary grades. As the Casey report notes, “(M)illions of American children get to fourth grade without learning to read proficiently. And that puts them on the dropout track.”

The second reminder was more personal—packing up to move to new office space—because that process stirred up my own past. Because I’m something of a pack rat, I saved all sorts of stuff from my three children’s elementary school years. Along with their early ‘art work’ and report cards, in their folders I found some of the books that they were given as part of the wonderful program known as Reading Is Fundamental, or RIF. RIF went to inner city schools (including ours in Washington, DC) offering free books to kids. These were often the first books a child had ever owned. What’s more, RIF offered choices, not just the books that teachers and parents wanted children to read over the summer or on their own. Reading is Fundamental makes reading FUN as well as fundamental.

My kids were fortunate. Their parents were readers, their school had not bought into either reading ideology, ‘whole language’ or ‘phonics,’ and the principal encouraged what was called SSR, sustained silent reading, a daily period of 20 minutes or so when everyone—including the teacher—read something of his or her own choosing. I had sweetened the pot by telling my kids that they could travel with me (I worked for NPR) as soon as they could read.

I noted earlier that reading is not a natural act, more like swimming than walking. Most children will not learn to read (or swim) unless they are taught. But teaching must take advantage of children’s natural desire to learn. Teaching must be joyful and carefully thought out. Teachers must adapt to individual children, because, while most children can learn to read in first grade, not everyone is ready, and no one should be made to feel a failure.

While I understand the distinction between ‘learning to read’ and ‘reading to learn,’ it’s essential to remember that all kids care about is the latter. They’re pragmatists, remember.

The importance of joy and freedom of choice is reinforced by recent research done at the University of Tennessee. The 3-year study found that giving low-income children books and letting them choose which 12 titles to take had a powerful impact on what’s called the ‘summer learning gap.’ The research involved more than 1300 Florida children and included a control group of kids who got games instead of books. The kids who got the books outperformed the others by the equivalent of three years of summer school. (If the fact that a biography of Britney Spears was the most popular choice bothers you, I say, “Get a grip.”)

Tara Parker-Pope’s article also reminds us of a grim reality: schools are cutting back on the very programs that provide the building blocks for all future learning, summer programs and enrichment programs.

I believe our best teachers ought to be in the early grades. Who can make that happen? Is it happening in some places? If so, let’s spread that word.

Learn More:

Reading is Fundamental

Annie E. Casey report, “Learning to Read/Reading to Learn

17 thoughts on “On learning to read

  1. Considering the early years are some of the most important developmentally, I agree we need great teachers in the early grades.

    But, what your piece also indicates is that we need free, early childhood education for all, as there is no substitute for a rich childhood.


  2. Does anyone remember the Writing to Read program from the 1980’s? As a first grade teacher at the Florida State Developmental Research School at that time, I found this to be a very natural and effective way for children to learn to read. The theory behind this program was that the more natural progression from speaking to reading is through writing. Children derive meaning from using their own language and learn to express it through writing using “invented” spelling in the beginning phase. The problem arose when teachers allowed students to stay in the temporary spelling phase when they should have been transitioning to regular spelling by second grade.

    I also highly recommend Frank Smith’s book, “Unspeakable Acts and Unnatural Practices” as a critique of scientific reading that may shed light on why Reading First has been such a disappointment. As Smith points out, “the whole point about systematic phonics instruction is that given too soon it confuses and given too late it is unnecessary.” (p. 38)


  3. For those interested in how reading takes place in the brain, check out Stanislas Dehaene’s new book, Reading in the Brain. I also summarize some of his key findings in Mind in the Making. His research on the neuroscience of reading helps us know how to promote reading in much more effective ways.


  4. I agree with everything you say (I am a middle/high school English teacher). But I am also interested in knowing what you think is the best method of instruction/approach for children with language-based learning disabilites/dyslexia, as that is a whole other kettle of fish-but equally crucial.


  5. I conducted a personal reading experiment with the start of the new year. How much of what I read in a day is pixel vs how much is paper and ink? In my case, pixel is winning right now by about 2 to 1. I still take the morning newspaper and retrieve it from the front yard every day…not for myself, but for my wife. You see, she is what I call a “tactile reader.” I, on the other hand, am a “pixel reader” and have finished the newspaper via computer every day before the physical version lands in my yard.

    Recently, as another experiment, I wanted to see how long it would take me to download a book and replicate it on an SD memory drive. Because it is well known, I chose to use the King James version of the Bible as the “book.” In less than 5 minutes I had found a source, did the download, and then filled the SD chip with 2,500 uncompressed copies. The SD chip costs about $9.00 and it holds 2,500 bibles. If you do the math, that’s about a third of a penny per complete bible.

    There was one last step to the experiment. How long would it take me to put the book on the Internet so it could be accessed by anyone, anytime, from anywhere? It was about another 5 minutes. Now, instead of a third-of-a-penny, the book is essentially free.

    Digital textbooks and informative instructional books for young readers are available at no cost to children. To see yet another experiment I’ve been working on, you may want to try the link below. Free books can be pretty good books for children…and most kids are OK with being tactile readers by “touching” a mouse!


  6. It might be splitting hairs over choice of words, John, but what I read (and agree with) in your characterization of “teaching” I would suggest fits better with “facilitating” or “developing.” Indeed, I believe strongly that the best “teachers” in school or informally outside facilitate the learning – promoting the intrinsic motivation through modeling or through the choice of assistance or both.


  7. Reading is essential for deep language development. Listening to peers, listening to conversation and watching TV is not enough. Reading is also essential for learning and higher academic achievement. But reading for pleasure as well as profit is something I have always encouraged. As one models good speech and good behavior for children so one must model the daily habit of reading. Reading is the first thing I do every day and it is the last thing. I always travel with reading matter even if it is just study cards or the daily newspaper. If I go on a trip I always have a small library to choose from. I alternate reading poetry, fiction and non-fiction. But I must say though I am an avid reader I have always disliked SSR (Sustained Silent Reading). If one was lucky to have an AP class it could be a nice relaxing break. If one had recalictrant general students it became a nightmare. You can’t put a gun to the head of a student and make that student read. Ultimately reading has to be meaningful for students. Ultimately they must choose to study and learn. And if they choose not to they must accept the consequences of their refusal to study. Ignorance is a voluntary misfortune.


  8. Another great post, John. I was visiting a summer learning academy in Indianapolis recently and saw three middle school boys hovering over a gaming magazine. They were taking in tips to better their gaming skills; meanwhile, they spent an hour reading. Why? Because it was important to them.


  9. I agree with you that the best teachers need to be in the early grades. But, as a preschool teacher serving low income families for 20 years, I will go even further and say that our best teachers need to be in the preschool classrooms. As a teacher, one of my primary goals was always to foster a love of books, to enjoy being read to. I always made sure the reading center in my classroom was the most inviting place in the room. I have a huge passion for children’s literature anyway, so in addition to great books that were fun for me to share, the best piece of equipement in that corner of the room was my always available lap plopped down on the pillow piled mattress. Another key component was parent education and support on this topic.


  10. To those who made the point about pre school, I agree that we need great teachers there, but I would put the superstars in first grade, because that’s where most kids could learn to read.
    I like what I have seen of writing to read. SSR only works when kids have lots of choices
    I’ve just gotten a copy of Ellen Galinsky’s new book, Mind in the Making, and look forward to readin it. That’s the Ellen G. whose last name the Times misspelled yesterday, by the way.
    Oh, speaking of books, I devote a chapter of Below C Level to this issue: http://www.belowclevel.org. (Shameless plug!)


  11. Pre reading skills need to begin even before prek- through rocking and holding, singing and swinging, music and rhythm. Reading is like learning to ride a bike, such exhilaration when you first get your balance.

    All my prek children left me believing they were learning to read.

    The problem is few adults read books anymore-it’s so easy to rent a DVD or watch T.V. Most kids have T.V.s in their bedrooms. Can’t tell you how many homes I’ve seen with no books.

    I always kept bins of books in the classroom. Kids who had none could pick some to take home- for keeps!


  12. John – I don’t know you but wish I did! Your essay brings developmental perspective to the topic of how children learn to read, and also undescores the teachers’ role in adapting to individual differences, carefully structuring multiple entry points through which they can enter reading, and bringing joy to the process. Limited, lock-step methods so frequently found in schools today need to give way to approaches that allow our primary grade teachers the opportunity to exercise their knowledge of children and their own creativity.

    Thank you for citing the U. of Tennessee 3 year study showing evidence that encouraging children’s desire to read books that interest them results in increased ability to read at later ages (thus saving thousands of summer school dollars and hours of kid and teacher misery!)
    As Maryanne Wolf writes in her book Proust and the Squid, “the reading process offers an example par excellence of a recently acquired cultural invention that requires something new from existing structures in the brain. The study of what the human brain has to do to read, and of its clever ways of adapting when things go wrong, is analogous to the study of the squid in earlier neuroscience”. Her whole book rejects a rigid method of teaching reading, recognizing that young children are developing individuals who need both flexibility and positive feeling to make the learning process successful.


  13. John, you just struck a cord. My first job out of college was teaching first grade. I found it as exciting as anything I had done. When I founded the Phillips Brooks school, we opened with kindergarten and first grade. Teaching those grades was always my first choice – although I did enjoy running the school and seeing it grow and prosper. But I think you are right on with the need to read and, of course, the joyful process of learning.

    For myself, I was reading before I started to go to school. My family members were all readers, and so it came naturally. And I’ve never stopped. I do hope your wise words get around and make a difference.


  14. Your comments about encouragement sparked some wonderful personal memories for me. Two of the most important influences on me as a reader were my paternal grandparents–both of whom were illiterate. Grandpa used to let me “read” the evening newspaper to him. He started me off before I was two years old just pointing at pictures and letters and turning the pages. My grandmother used to let me read her passages from the Bible, which I later learned she could not read, but knew by heart. It kindled my love of reading.


  15. Thanks John! I look forward to your thoughts about Mind in the Making and thanks for noticing that my name was misspelled in the New York Times on Tuesday 🙂


  16. This is the best site for anybody who desires to find out about this topic. You notice so much its nearly onerous to argue with you (not that I truly would want…HaHa). You undoubtedly put a brand new spin on a topic thats been written about for ages. Nice stuff, simply nice!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s