How Students Learn To Read. 6 Things You Can Learn From Reading Science



Key Takeaways.

  1. Reading is tricky, but it’s hard to remember why. Because you’re a skilled reader, you forget how complex a skill this is.
  2. Making sense of lines curves and dots. Children need to know how to turn printed text into the sounds of spoken language
  3. Thou shalt teach phonics. Thou shalt! See below for how it’s done.
  4. On to whole word reading. As students get better at reading, they rely less and less on conscious phonological awareness and more on whole-word recognition.
  5. See more print, know more words. Students develop ‘orthographic awareness’ by being exposed to more print.
  6. Use morphology to break down complex words. Morphology can work like a multi-letter alphabet helping students navigate unfamiliar words based on what they know about how familiar words are constructed.


Reading underpins the acquisition of knowledge and is a crucial skill that supports students to succeed in life.  

Exactly how students learn to read is debated in education. For years the “reading wars” have pitted phonics instruction against a whole language approach to reading. This makes it difficult for teachers to know which reading strategies to use when teaching students to read.

Thankfully, and unsurprisingly, the field of reading science has a lot to say about how students learn to read. In their excellent paper Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert,  Anne Castles, Kathy Rastle and Kate Nation break down exactly how children learn to read.

So let’s have a look at what reading science can teach us about how students develop this skill and what it means for your teaching.


Reading is tricky, but it’s hard to remember why.


It’s hard for you to fully understand how reading develops because you’re good at it. As an expert reader (and you are one if you’re reading this), it’s easy to forget just how complex a process this is.

Your brain quickly and accurately turns printed symbols into words, comprehends the meaning of these words and links the printed words with your background knowledge to understand a passage of text. You’re doing this right now without being fully aware of it, and you can read more than 250 words a minute without breaking a mental sweat. This is not a skill that develops easily.


Making sense of lines, curves and dots.


Learning to speak is a natural outcome of human development. A child that is exposed to a rich spoken-language environment will learn to understand and produce spoken language.

The same cannot be said with reading. You can expose a child to as much written text as you like, but without explicit reading instruction, they will not naturally develop the ability to read.

To learn to read, children need to learn how to associate written symbols (patterns of lines curves and dots) with the meanings of words that they know in spoken language.

The first step in this process is to understand the symbol-to-sound relationship between each letter of the alphabet and its associated sound(s). In a technical sense, students are learning the relationship between a phoneme (the smallest unit of sound in a spoken language) and a grapheme (the way that sound is written down) – this is the basics of phonics.

Once a child can decode the symbol-to-sound relationships of a writing system (e.g. the English alphabet) they will have the ability to translate printed words into spoken language and access the information about the word’s meaning.

Before children develop this ability properly, they learn to “read” by memorising the meaning of individual printed words using their appearance, e.g. understanding that yellow has ‘two sticks’ in the middle.

However, for students to become skilled readers further phonemic awareness is required. Genuine alphabetic decoding is a scalable skill – students can apply the letter-sound relationships to all words they encounter. This is much more effective than trying to teach students the meaning of whole words.


From Ending the Reading Wars:

 “…the rationale for systematic phonics instruction is that a relatively small body of knowledge of how graphemes relate to phonemes provides children with the ability to decode most words in their language. Provided that children have adequate vocabulary, this sound-based representation can then be used to access the meanings of those words. If instruction instead focused on teaching children to associate printed words with their meanings directly, then learning to read would require memorization of tens of thousands of individual printed words.”


Thou shalt teach phonics.


What does this mean for teaching students to read? It means that effective reading instruction depends on teaching children phonics so they can ‘crack the alphabet code’. Phonics needs to be taught ‘systematically’ meaning there should be an ordered approach to teaching students the grapheme-phoneme (i.e. letter-sound) relationships.

In English, there are about 44 phonemes (sounds) to the 26 graphemes (letters). Phonics can either be taught synthetically, or analytically and the research is not entirely conclusive on which is best.

  • Synthertic – each grapheme-phoneme relationship is introduced individually and explicitly taught. Students then move on to combining or synthesising two phonetic relationships to form words.
  • Analytic whole words are presented to students who are taught to break them down into their phonetic components.

Either way, it’s essential that students learn the relationship between letters and sounds – without this, they’re not going to learn to read.

English is tricky because there is a degree of irregularity in the spelling-to-sound relationship of some words (think about “eye” or “friend”). In an effective reading program, these are taught as exceptions, often introduced as “tricky” words, or “sight” words.

Students should be encouraged to rote learn these words rather than relying on their phonetic code-breaking skills. Mnemonic devices can help here (occasionally, when very tired the phrase Every Indian Goes Home Tonight floats into my head when I’m spelling the word Eight). With this combination of phonics and rote learning “tricky” words, students can read most of the words they encounter.


From Ending the Reading Wars:

“There would seem to be a case for teaching children the pronunciations of a small number of such words directly, particularly those that they are likely to see very frequently in the texts they are reading (such as the, come, have, and said). In effect, this ensures that children can relate the visual symbols of writing to spoken language for as many words as possible and as early in their schooling as possible.”


On to whole word reading.


When you read, you don’t assign letters to sounds, then sounds to words and then words to meanings. Well, you might, but you don’t do this with the same awareness that a new reader has when they’re learning.

Instead, you read whole words and understand their meaning. How this happens is complex, but it’s likely the result of two processes – an alphabetic-based process (slower and used for less familiar words) and a whole-word recognition process (faster and used for familiar words).


From Ending the Reading Wars:

“[There are] two key cognitive processes in word reading: one that involves the translation of a word’s spelling into its sound and then to meaning, and one that involves gaining access to meaning directly from the spelling, without the requirement to do so via phonology… Together, they allow optimal processing of words across the full spectrum from being new and unfamiliar to a reader, where alphabetic decoding is critical, to highly familiar, where direct access to meaning is more efficient.”


Understanding this helps teachers map out what children need to learn to become strong readers. As students move from being novice to expert readers, they rely less and less on alphabetic decoding and more on whole-word recognition. Phonological awareness still plays a part in expert reading (for example both feal and feap are non-words, but you’re more likely to read the first as the word feel because your brain is doing some phonological processing without you being fully aware of it), but whole-word recognition is the back-bone of skilled reading.


See more print, know more words.


The ability to draw on word-specific knowledge to more effectively discern a word’s meaning, along with general knowledge about writing conventions is known as orthographic learning (orthos = right/correct, graphia = writing). Children need to develop orthographic learning to become more skilled at whole-word reading.

An important driver of orthographic awareness is the amount of print a child is exposed to. Research suggests that more exposure to printed text supports orthographic learning and better whole-word reading ability. How does it do this? The more children are exposed to print, the more they develop a thing called lexical quality. This means students can understand words in a way that is both flexible and precise.


From Ending the Reading Wars:

“Precision of the representation—knowledge of the exact spelling—is important because it allows a child to distinguish a written word from similar-looking words, permitting direct access to its meaning (e.g., to differentiate face from fact, fame, and lace). Flexibility of the representation is important because it allows a child to adapt dynamically to different print-meaning combinations (such as reading about eating jam versus reading about getting in a jam) “


The more lexical quality a child builds, the less cognitive resources they require for reading. Children with higher levels of lexical quality have more of their working memory available for comprehending what they read because they aren’t spending a lot of resources on individual word-meanings.

Motivating students to read is important in increasing their exposure to print. In his book The Reading Mind, the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham suggests two things are important here: maximising the value of reading and making the choice to read easy.


From Ending the Reading Wars:

“Children will value the activity of reading more if they have opportunities to read texts that they are interested in, that their friends are reading, or that are of some practical use to them. For example, comics, books of song lyrics, movie novelizations, or sporting skill manuals are all texts that—although they do not fall into the category of great literature—may be intrinsically motivating to a child. In relation to making the choice easy, Willingham notes that the amount of personal time that children spend reading depends not just on whether they want to read but also on whether they want to do it more than all the other available options. “


To make reading an easier choice to children Willingham suggests making reading material highly visible – that means books or other reading materials everywhere children are – in their classrooms, in multiple rooms in the house, the car. If there are books around, children are more likely to choose reading over other activities.


Use morphology to break down complex words.


So far, you’ve seen that students connect meaning to words through recognising words they are familiar with or using alphabetic decoding. Something that helps this process is morphology.

As words become more complex, there is often more of a relationship between the spelling of a word and its meaning. Understanding these relationships is understanding the morphology of words. A morpheme is a minimum “meaning-bearing unit” of a word. For example, darkness is made up of two morphemes {dark} + {-ness}.

As readers gain capacity, they start to recognise that certain groups of letters represent particular meanings. In a way, morphology acts like a multi-letter alphabet for readers who can take relationships learnt in one context and apply them to novel contexts.

You saw the morphology of orthographic above (orthos = right/correct + graphic = writing) and this understanding makes you more likely to work out that bibliography has something to do with books or that orthodontics has something to do with the process of correction. Students who have more morphological understanding are better placed to decode complex new words that they encounter.  

Like the alphabetic code, this element of reading is best developed through explicit instruction. As students develop this morphological awareness, they can again scale-up their ability to read by applying rules they know from past learning to unknown words they encounter.


From Ending the Reading Wars:

“Acquiring knowledge of how morphology underpins the mapping between spelling and meaning is an important process in the development of skilled reading. Once morphological regularities between spelling and meaning are discovered, orthographic learning does not need to proceed one item at a time. Instead, for those words comprising more than one morpheme, recognizing and getting to the meaning of printed words can be based on analysis of the constituents (e.g., recognizing darkness through analysis of its components {dark} + {-ness}).”


Students’ progression from non-readers to being able to make sense of words is a complex process. This process is supported along the way by explicit teaching approaches and exposure to print to demystify the reading process for students.


Key Takeaways.

  1. Reading is tricky, but it’s hard to remember why. Because you’re a skilled reader, you forget how complex a skill this is.
  2. Making sense of lines curves and dots. Children need to know how to turn printed text into the sounds of spoken language
  3. Thou shalt teach phonics. Thou shalt! See above for how it’s done.
  4. On to whole word reading. As students get better at reading, they rely less and less on conscious phonological awareness and more on whole-word recognition.
  5. See more print, know more words. Students develop ‘orthographic awareness’ by being exposed to more print.
  6. Use morphology to break down complex words. Morphology can work like a multi-letter alphabet helping students navigate unfamiliar words based on what they know about how familiar words are constructed.