Untangling Learning-to-Read Myths
In the past ten years, educational research has brought much clarity to what does, and doesn’t, support a young child to learn to read and write well. Before we explore some essential tools to help your child with this process, let’s untangle some common myths that can inadvertently derail the process.
MYTH 1: Children learn to read in the same way they learn to talk
Talking is hard-wired into our DNA. Typically, a child immersed in a rich speaking environment will learn to talk by the time he reaches his first birthday. For many years, the educational world believed this ‘immersion’ theory could be transposed to develop a child’s reading skills. We now know this isn’t true. Learning to read is quite different from learning to talk. Humans have been talking for tens of thousands of years; in contrast we’ve only been reading for a few thousand years. Reading is not hard-wired into our DNA. Reading will not just happen; it must be taught.
MYTH 2: Surround young children with books and they will learn to read
Most of us probably know a child who seemingly taught themselves to read, by being surrounded by a wonderful world of books and stories. This is the exception, not the rule. It is true that immersing young children in books is hugely beneficial for brain development, vocabulary enrichment and igniting a love of words, books and stories.
It is to be encouraged wholeheartedly. But, learning to read is a complex process. It requires the weaving together of a multitude of skills, knowledge and attitudes.
A young child needs to know their letters and sounds. She needs to know how to blend the sounds of letters together to read a word. She needs to have strategies to read an unfamiliar word. Most children need explicit instruction to learn to read. Most children do not learn to read by osmosis.
MYTH 3: Children must be a certain age before they can learn to read
Learning to read evolves along a continuum of developmental skills and knowledge. From birth, children are constantly building the brain pathways that will enable them to read and write well. Many young children transition to conventional reading (of first books) between five and seven years old because this is typically when learning to read becomes a strong focus within the schooling system. We must not let this age-based convention distract us from the reality of what is happening – children progress along the learning-to-read continuum, step by incremental step.
MYTH 4: Learning to read is a school’s responsibility
Your child’s school is responsible for teaching your child to read. However, there is unequivocal evidence that a parent’s involvement has a positive effect on a child’s achievement. A child ingrained with the pleasure of reading will read for personal enjoyment, which in turn leads to practice, progress and success. When parents promote reading as a worthwhile activity and encourage reading for pleasure, and when there is rich communication between a child and parent generally and specifically about books, these offer the most impact to a child’s success and achievement in reading.
MYTH 5: Learning to read is a visual activity
It would be easy to assume that reading is a visual activity. Clearly we ‘see’ the words, and then we read them. But this is just part of the picture. Underpinning this is where the real work lies: matching the individual sounds within spoken words to the specific letters on the page. For those of us who grow into reading adults, the matching of sounds to letters, the connection of letter patterns to sounds, and the blending of these sounds together has become automatic. We may bump into a word every now and then where we are unsure of the letter pattern/sound combination but, generally, we forget about the ‘sound’ work that enables reading to happen.
The link between sounds, letters and learning to read is evident when we explore the learning-to-read process with children who struggle in this area. How can a child who is born deaf sound out the letters to a word if they have never heard the sounds in the first place? Learning to read in this situation requires trained specialists – and is by no means a guaranteed outcome.
Why is it important to understand how the roots of reading requires sound-based experiences to flourish? Because it takes years of these songs, music, storytelling, talking, nursery rhymes, listening to environmental sounds, etc., to build the brain pathways that will enable a child to differentiate the sounds in spoken words. These pathways must be strong and sturdy before a child can progress towards conventional reading.
Untangling Learning-to-Write Myths
MYTH 1: Children must be a certain age before they can learn to write
Learning to write is a developmental activity, not an age-based activity. Just like reading, children will learn to write at different ages and at different speeds, and the skills required to grow a healthy brain in this area will have been developing since birth.
Unlike reading, however, writing is both a physical and cognitive (thinking) activity. The fine motor skills and dexterity required to hold a pencil are built upon years of gross motor (whole body) development, and so physical activity is crucial for building up the skills required for writing.
MYTH 2: A child will be ready to hold a pencil by the time he reaches school age
The thinking behind having an accurate pencil grip is that it allows for ease in the physical task of writing. An inaccurate pencil grip leads to fingers and hands that tire quickly, resulting in less writing overall. An accurate pencil grip evolves from years of hands-on practice with mark-making tools: crayons, pencils, paint brushes and so on. It also develops with the practice of fine-motor skill tasks. Even so, many young children will need guidance on how to hold a pencil accurately and comfortably.
It is the years of fine motor skill development and mark-making experiences that will lead to a child progressing to an accurate pencil grip – not their age. A five- or six-year-old who has had few experiences with mark-making and fine motor skills will not be ready to hold a pencil effectively.
MYTH 3: Boys are not interested in writing
Research in the area of boys/gender and writing suggests that, compared to girls, fewer boys are interested in engaging in writing activities (in all levels of the education system). At primary school, boys underachieve by around 10–15 per cent in writing benchmarks, compared to girls. However, research also shows there are more differences within gender outcomes in writing, and there is no biological reason why some boys underachieve in writing. In fact, many boys do well in it; they enjoy writing and achieve at a high level.
Current thinking is that some boys underachieve in writing because of social and cultural reasons. It is the classic self-fulfilling philosophy – if we believe boys will fail at writing, then they will.
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