Cover for article showing a boy reading on the floor and the text How Children Learn to Read.

How Do Children Learn to Read?

Reading is seen as one of the most important skills we need to develop as we grow.  Once we learn to read, so much learning and information is available to us literally right at our fingertips.  Without the ability to read, though, so many doors start to close and our opportunities become limited.

Did you know that we are not born with a brain that is ready to read?  Our brains are ready to learn language and to develop a visual understanding of the world, but these two areas are not connected when we are born.  Since written language is a relatively new invention, we have to ‘take over’ part of the brain to connect these two areas to learn to read.

The area of the brain that is taken over is where we recognize faces and this function is moved to another area.  Since faces are fairly symmetrical, it takes some time for this area of the brain to begin to understand that letters are not symmetrical.  This is why when children initially learn to read, they often mix up letters that are mirror images of each other, such as ‘b’ and ‘d’ and ‘p’ and ‘q’, and write these letters backwards.  Interesting, huh?

Even though we must initially be taught to read, eventually the brain reaches a point where it has developed the ability to read new words and will not need direct teaching.  Once we understand how the brain learns to read, then we can determine what pre-reading skills our children are strongest in and which areas need extra support.  So let’s dig in!

Learn how children learn to read.

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Auditory/Language Skills Associated with Reading

The auditory module is located in the front of the brain and  processes speech.  It consists of two parts: a vocabulary bank that includes the pronunciation of words and an area that understands phonemic sounds.  The vocabulary bank consists of all the words we recognize and use and the pronunciations of these words need to be present before we can learn to read these words.  Children develop this area through natural language development.  The phonemic section of the auditory module contains the representations of all the sounds that make up words  Children become aware that words are made up of syllables (e.g., but/ ter/ fly) and syllables are made up of phonemes (e.g., but /b/-/u/-/t/)  They also learn that you can group sounds together in words (e.g., /b/-/ut/ and /bu/-/t/).  This is also the part of your brain that understands rhyming.  Rhyming ability is highly linked with a child’s ability to learn to read.

Visual Skills Associated with Reading

The visual module is located in the back of the brain and accesses images.  It consists of two parts as well: word form recognition and letter shape identification.  The word form recognition area recognizes words based on sight rather than sounding out the words.  Children may start recognizing logos on stores and restaurants and then recognize high frequency words such as STOP from stop signs, their name and the names of other children around them.  The letter identification part of the brain recognizes the letters of the alphabet and children will start to learn that those letters are parts of whole word forms.

How the Brain Learns to Read Diagram

Strategies Children Use to Learn to Read

Phonics/Decoding:  When children learn to decode, they use the letter shape identification area of the back of the brain to identify the letters and send this information to the phonemic sound section in the front of the brain to map each letter to its corresponding sound.  (Path A above.)  For example, the visual module recognizes the shape of M and sends that information to the front of the brain where it is matched with the sound ‘mmm’.  Children will need good letter-sound associations (known as phonics) to complete this process.

When children are presented with a word such as ‘mom’, they will send each letter to the front of the brain and match it to its sound.  Next, the child will need to blend the sounds together, and then ‘check’ with the vocabulary bank of the brain to match it to a pronunciation in the child’s vocabulary and attach meaning to the word. (Path C above.) This is how we all read unknown words.  When a child is first learning to read, most words are unknown and this process will be a very powerful tool in learning to read.

Visual Memory: When children recognize a word by sight, they use the whole word form recognition part of the visual module and send that information directly to the vocabulary bank of the auditory module to retrieve the spoken word. (Path B above.)  This process is used for known words and is a faster process than decoding words.  As more words are processed this way, children are then recognized as readers.  The more words in the vocabulary bank, the more words the child will learn to read and will commit to visual memory.  This path will eventually take over for the vast majority of words as children progress in their reading development.

Language Context: As stated above, once letters are mapped to sounds, language context helps children match the decoded word to the vocabulary bank in the auditory module. (Path C above.)    When the brain is using the faster Path B between whole word recognition and the vocabulary bank, language context also helps the brain ‘double-check’ it has the right word.  In the example above, if the child initially determined the word he was reading was ‘mom’, but knew the sentence was “I ate….mom.”, he would know that did not make sense and would need to go back and use the previous strategies to re-read the word.

Now that you understand what your child needs to develop to learn to read, you can start to see the areas that you want to strengthen in your child to make learning to read as smooth and painless as possible.  Read Five Strategies To Get Your Child Ready to Read to learn how to strengthen each of these areas.  Then, check out the brain-based reading curriculum we used with both of our boys who brought very different strengths to the reading process!

Further Information:

Video: How the Brain Learns to Read by Professor Stanislas Dehaene (33 min. long)

Teaching the Brain to Read by: Dr. Duncan Milne