The Science of Reading- How do kids learn to read?

What is reading all about? Is reading something we need to learn how to do. Read this article to find out more.

For close to last six years now, I have worked in the field of English Language and teaching. I’ve had many opportunities to work with research organisations. Much of their work involves the science of reading and ‘literacy growth’. In my experiences as a teacher trainer in over 50 schools across the country, so many teachers come back to ask the age-old question– “how do children learn to read? What’s the science behind it all?

At first, the sheer amount of material on the topic left me staggered. After all, human beings have been reading for centuries, and fascinated by the process for almost as long. As time passed, we began to break the phenomenon of reading down into smaller questions–
Is it purely innate or inherited with time?”
“Rooted in cognitive psychology or neuroscience?”
Based on learning styles or teaching methodology?

As we answered these questions, the mystery behind the skill of reading slowly began to unravel.

A Tale of Two Theories

There are two popular theories when it comes to the science of reading. While almost every researcher is aware of these theories, very few teachers are exposed to them.

1. Orthographic Mapping

Orthographic Mapping is the way in which alphabets are pronounced, not only in isolation but also as part of different words. To illustrate, a language like Italian is quite orthographically ‘transparent‘. What that means is one letter will always sound the same, both within and outside a given word. Phonology is the study of the patterns of sounds in a language and across languages. The phonology rules of Italian is strict, making it a relatively simpler language to learn.

Therefore, for a child who has learned all the Italian letters and their sounds separately, the basic act of reading Italian will be easy, as decoding is based on strict rules. Decoding is the ability to physically read words on a page.

But things are a little trickier in a more opaque language like English. In English, the rules vary. The way a letter sounds differs, based on the position of the letter in the words, and its combination with other letters.

Science of Reading, Scrabble Pieces, Letters, Pile, Boardgames

Let us see an example of this. If the word ‘dictation’ is read the way it’s spelled, it should end with a “tyon” sound. But, as we know, the last four letters are pronounced “shun”. This ‘rule’ becomes a set pattern (-tion) that helps the child read other words like ‘pollution’ or ‘station’ correctly. Teachers use a method called ‘Phonics‘, to familiarise kids with the various letter groups. 

Read more about how to use Phonics here!

2. The Simple View of Reading

It’s important to keep in mind that decoding and phonics is not all there is to the art of reading. ‘The Simple View of Reading’ is a theory by a pair of psychologists, developed in 1986. Since then, it has been fine-tuned and proven several times by scientists all over the world. It splits reading comprehension into two equally essential components, in a simple equation:

Science of Reading, Flow Chart, Simple View of Reading, Decoding, Language Comprehension, reading comprehension

Understanding the Science of Reading

For a child to master reading comprehension, simply knowing words is not enough. While a good vocabulary is essential, understanding the words and making sense of the whole sentence is just as important.

There is also a widespread misconception in the education industry, that the ultimate mark of skilled reading is automatic recognition of words.

For instance, a ten-year-old who is good at decoding, might be able to read the following paragraph:

Reading Passage, Science of Reading

But can they articulate, in their own words, what it actually meant? If not, their language comprehension needs some work.

Needless to say, if either one of these sides is lacking, it becomes glaringly obvious in reading patterns.

Kids who have problems with decoding have a slow oral reading rate, face difficulty recognizing words out of context, and tend to read without modulating their voice because they often ignore punctuation. Meanwhile, kids who find language comprehension difficult cannot explain the main ideas of a passage, might quickly forget what they just read, and suffer from weak phrasing in spoken communication.

From Theory to Practice

In conclusion, this is why educators everywhere need to know their way around these two theories. Different students have different pockets of reading they struggle with, and regular testing will help teachers identify these areas. But they must remember that the solution is not homogeneous. Each student’s individual strengths and weaknesses requires tailored solutions. 

A balanced approach is the best way to teach and learn a language. This way, children are not only able to read texts at a high speed, but also able to take in the finer details, achieving true mastery of reading.


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