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How Most Children Learn to Read

About Reading

How Most Children Learn to Read

Play is the work of children — through play and interaction, children learn how to talk, listen, read, and write. Read about typical behaviors of emergent and beginning readers, and how each of these behaviors relate to reading and writing.

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Between the ages of four and nine, your child will have to master some 100 phonics rules, learn to recognize 3,000 words with just a glance, and develop a comfortable reading speed approaching 100 words a minute. He must learn to combine words on the page with a half-dozen squiggles called punctuation into something — a voice or image in his mind that gives back meaning. 

Paul Kropp

Emerging literacy

Emerging literacy describes the gradual, ongoing process of learning to understand and use language that begins at birth and continues through the early childhood years (i.e., through age eight). During this period children first learn to use oral forms of language (listening and speaking) and then begin to explore and make sense of written forms (reading and writing).

Listening and speaking

Emerging literacy begins in infancy as a parent lifts a baby, looks into her eyes, and speaks softly to her. It’s hard to believe that this casual, spontaneous activity is leading to the development of language skills. This pleasant interaction helps the baby learn about the give and take of conversation and the pleasures of communicating with other people.

Young children continue to develop listening and speaking skills as they communicate their needs and desires through sounds and gestures, babble to themselves and others, say their first words, and rapidly add new words to their spoken vocabularies. Most children who have been surrounded by language from birth are fluent speakers by age three, regardless of intelligence, and without conscious effort.

Each of the 6,000 languages in the world uses a different assortment of phonemes – the distinctive sounds used to form words. When adults hear another language, they may not notice the differences in phonemes not used in their own language. Babies are born with the ability to distinguish these differences. Their babbles include many more sounds than those used in their home language. At about 6 to 10 months, babies begin to ignore the phonemes not used in their home language. They babble only the sounds made by the people who talk with them most often.

During their first year, babies hear speech as a series of distinct, but meaningless words. By age 1, most children begin linking words to meaning. They understand the names used to label familiar objects, body parts, animals, and people. Children at this stage simplify the process of learning these labels by making three basic assumptions:

  • Labels (words) refer to a whole object, not parts or qualities (Flopsy is a beloved toy, not its head or color).
  • Labels refer to classes of things rather than individual items (Doggie is the word for all four-legged animals).
  • Anything that has a name can only have one name (for now, Daddy is Daddy, and not a man or Jake).

As children develop their language skills, they give up these assumptions and learn new words and meanings. From this point on, children develop language skills rapidly. Here is a typical sequence:

  • At about 18 months, children add new words to their vocabulary at the astounding rate of one every 2 hours.
  • By age 2, most children have 1 to 2,000 words and combine two words to form simple sentences such as: “Go out.” “All gone.”
  • Between 24 to 30 months, children speak in longer sentences.
  • From 30 to 36 months, children begin following the rules for expressing tense and number and use words such as some, would, and who.

Reading and writing

At the same time as they are gaining listening and speaking skills, young children are learning about reading and writing.

At home and in child care, Head Start, or school, they listen to favorite stories and retell them on their own, play with alphabet blocks, point out the logo on a sign for a favorite restaurant, draw pictures, scribble and write letters and words, and watch as adults read and write for pleasure and to get jobs done.

Young children make numerous language discoveries as they play, explore, and interact with others. Language skills are primary avenues for cognitive development because they allow children to talk about their experiences and discoveries. Children learn the words used to describe concepts such as up and down, and words that let them talk about past and future events.

Many play experiences support children’s emerging literacy skills. Sorting, matching, classifying, and sequencing materials such as beads, a box of buttons, or a set of colored cubes, contribute to children’s emerging literacy skills. Rolling playdough and doing fingerplays help children strengthen and improve the coordination of the small muscles in their hands and fingers. They use these muscles to control writing tools such as crayons, markers, and brushes.

As their language skills grow, young children tell stories, identify printed words such as their names, write their names on paintings and creations, and incorporate writing in their make-believe play. After listening to a story, they talk about the people, feelings, places, things, and events in the book and compare them to their own experiences.

Reading and writing skills develop together. Children learn about writing by seeing how the print in their homes, classrooms, and communities provides information. They watch and learn as adults write – to make a list, correspond with a friend, or do a crossword puzzle. They also learn from doing their own writing.

The chart below offers examples of activities preschool and kindergarten children engage in, and describes how they are related to reading and writing.

What children might do

How it relates to reading and writing

Make a pattern with objects such as buttons, beads, small colored cubes.
By putting things in a certain order, children gain an understanding of sequence. This will help them discover that the letters in words must go in a certain order.
Listen to a story, then talk with their families, teachers, or tutors and each other about the plot, characters, what might happen next, and what they liked about the book.Children enjoy read-aloud sessions. They learn that books can introduce people, places, and ideas and describe familiar experiences. Listening and talking helps children build their vocabularies. They have fun while learning basic literacy concepts such as: print is spoken words that are written down, print carries meaning, and we read from left to right, from the top to the bottom of a page, and from the front to the back of a book.
Play a matching game such as concentration or picture bingo.Seeing that some things are exactly the same leads children to the understanding that the letters in words must be written in the same order every time to carry meaning.
Move to music while following directions such as, put your hands up, down, in front, in back, to the left, to the right. Now wiggle all over.Children gain an understanding of concepts such as up/down, front/back, and left/right, and add these words to their vocabularies. Understanding these concepts leads to knowledge of how words are read and written on a page.
Recite rhyming poems introduced by a parent, teacher, or tutor, and make up new rhymes on their own.Children become aware of phonemes – the smallest units of sounds that make up words. This awareness leads to reading and writing success.
Make signs for a pretend grocery store.Children practice using print to provide information – in this case, the price of different foods.
Retell a favorite story to another child or a stuffed animal.Children gain confidence in their ability to learn to read. They practice telling the story in the order it was read to them – from the beginning to the middle to the end.
Use invented spelling to write a grocery list at the same time as a parent is writing his or her own list.Children use writing to share information with others. By watching an adult write, they are introduced to the conventions of writing. Using invented spelling encourages phonemic awareness.
Sign their names (with a scribble, a drawing, some of the letters, or “correctly”) on an attendance chart, painting, or letter.Children are learning that their names represent them and that other words represent objects, emotions, actions, and so on. They see that writing serves a purpose to let their teacher know they have arrived, to show others their art work, or to tell someone who sent a letter.

Becoming readers and writers

By the time most children leave the preschool years and enter kindergarten, they have learned a lot about language. For five years, they have watched, listened to, and interacted with adults and other children. They have played, explored, and made discoveries at home and in child development settings such as Head Start and child care.


Beginning or during kindergarten, most children have naturally developed language skills and knowledge. They …

Know print carries meaning by:

  • Turning pages in a storybook to find out what happens next
  • “writing” (scribbling or using invented spelling) to communicate a message
  • Using the language and voice of stories when narrating their stories
  • Dictating stories

Know what written language looks like by:

  • Recognizing that words are combinations of letters
  • Identifying specific letters in unfamiliar words
  • Writing with “mock” letters or writing that includes features of real letters

Can identify and name letters of the alphabet by:

  • Saying the alphabet
  • Pointing out letters of the alphabet in their own names and in written texts

Know that letters are associated with sounds by:

  • Finger pointing while reading or being read to
  • Spelling words phonetically, relating letters to the sounds they hear in the word

Know the sounds that letters make by:

  • Naming all the objects in a room that begin with the same letter
  • Pointing to words in a text that begin with the same letter
  • Picking out words that rhyme
  • Trying to sound out new or unfamiliar words while reading out loud
  • Representing words in writing by their first sound (e.g., writing d to represent the word dog)

Know using words can serve various purposes by:

  • Pointing to signs for specific places, such as a play area, a restaurant, or a store
  • Writing for different purposes, such as writing a (pretend) grocery list, writing a thank-you letter, or writing a menu for play

Know how books work by:

  • Holding the book right side up
  • Turning pages one at a time
  • Reading from left to right and top to bottom
  • Beginning reading at the front and moving sequentially to the back

Because children have been learning language since birth, most are ready to move to the next step mastering conventional reading and writing. To become effective readers and writers children need to:

  • Recognize the written symbols letters and words used in reading and writing
  • Write letters and form words by following conventional rules
  • Use routine skills and thinking and reasoning abilities to create meaning while reading and writing

The written symbols we use to read and write are the 26 upper and lower case letters of the alphabet. The conventional rules governing how to write letters and form words include writing letters so they face in the correct direction, using upper and lower case versions, spelling words correctly, and putting spaces between words.

Routine skills refer to the things readers do automatically, without stopping to think about what to do. We pause when we see a comma or period, recognize high-frequency sight words, and use what we already know to understand what we read. One of the critical routine skills is phonemic awareness the ability to associate specific sounds with specific letters and letter combinations.

Research has shown that phonemic awareness is the best predictor of early reading skills. Phonemes, the smallest units of sounds, form syllables, and words are made up of syllables. Children who understand that spoken language is made up of discrete sounds phonemes and syllables find it easier to learn to read.

Many children develop phonemic awareness naturally, over time. Simple activities such as frequent readings of familiar and favorite stories, poems, and rhymes can help children develop phonemic awareness. Other children may need to take part in activities designed to build this basic skill.

Thinking and reasoning abilities help children figure out how to read and write unfamiliar words. A child might use the meaning of a previous word or phrase, look at a familiar prefix or suffix, or recall how to pronounce a letter combination that appeared in another word.

First and second grades

By the time most children have completed the first and second grades, they have naturally developed the following language skills and knowledge. They…

Improve their comprehension while reading a variety of simple texts by:

  • Thinking about what they already know
  • Creating and changing mental pictures
  • Making, confirming, and revising predictions
  • Rereading when confused

Apply word-analysis skills while reading by:

  • Using phonics and simple context clues to figure out unknown words
  • Using word parts (e.g., root words, prefixes, suffixes, similar words) to figure out unfamiliar words

Understand elements of literature (e.g., author, main character, setting) by:

  • Coming to a conclusion about events, characters, and settings in stories
  • Comparing settings, characters, and events in different stories
  • Explaining reasons for characters acting the way they do in stories

Understand the characteristics of various simple genres (e.g., fables, realistic fiction, folk tales, poetry, and humorous stories) by:

  • Explaining the differences among simple genres
  • Writing stories that contain the characteristics of a selected genre

Use correct and appropriate conventions of language when responding to written text by:

  • Spelling common high-frequency words correctly
  • Using capital letters, commas, and end punctuation correctly
  • Writing legibly in print and/or cursive
  • Using appropriate and varied word choice
  • Using complete sentences

The chart below offers examples of activities children engage in and describes how they are related to reading and writing.

What children might do

How it relates to reading and writing

Discuss the rules for an upcoming field trip, watch their teacher write them on a large sheet of paper, and join in when she reads the rules aloud.
Children experience first-hand how different forms of language listening, speaking, reading, and writing are connected. They see language used for a purpose, in this case to prepare for their field trip. They see their words written down and hear them read aloud.
Look in a book to find the answer to a question.Children know that print provides information. They use books as a resource to learn about the world.
Read and reread a book independently for several days after the teacher reads it aloud to the class.Children read and reread the book because it’s fun and rewarding. They can recall some of the words the teacher reads aloud and figure out others because they remember the sequence and meaning of the story.
Read some words easily without stopping to decode them.Children gradually build a sight vocabulary that includes a majority of the words used most often in the English language. They can read these words automatically.
Read words they have never seen before.Children use what they already know about letter combinations, root words, prefixes, suffixes, and clues in the pictures or story to figure out new words.
Use new words while talking and writing.Children build their vocabularies by reading and talking, sharing ideas, discussing a question, listening to others talk, and exploring their interests. Using new words helps them fully understand the meaning of the words.
Recognize their own spelling mistakes and ask for help to make corrections.Children understand that spelling is not just matching sounds with letters. They are learning the basic rules that govern spelling and the exceptions to the rules.
Ask questions about what they read.Children understand that there is more to reading than pronouncing words correctly. They may ask questions to clarify what they have read or to learn more about the topic.
Choose to read during free time at home, at school, and in out-of-school programs.Children learn to enjoy reading independently, particularly when they can read books of their own choosing. The more children read, the better readers they become.

Key points about development

  • Children develop in four, interrelated areas cognitive and language, physical, social, and emotional.
  • Most children follow the same sequence and pattern for development, but do so at their own pace.
  • Language skills are closely tied to and affected by cognitive, social, and emotional development.
  • Children first learn to listen and speak, then use these and other skills to learn to read and write.
  • Children’s experiences and interactions in the early years are critical to their brain development and overall learning.
  • Emerging literacy is the gradual, ongoing process of learning to understand and use language.
  • Children make numerous language discoveries as they play, explore, and interact with others.
  • Children build on their language discoveries to become conventional readers and writers.
  • Effective readers and writers recognize letters and words, follow writing rules, and create meaning from text.
  • Successful programs to promote children’s reading and literacy development should be based on an understanding of child development, recent research on brain development, and the natural ongoing process through which most young children acquire language skills and become readers and writers.

Excerpted from: Koralek, D. & Collins, R. How Most Children Learn To Read. On the Road to Reading: A Guide for Community Partners. America Reads Challenge, U. S. Department of Education.

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