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Reading is Not Easy Because Reading is Not Natural

Geoff Nixon

By Geoff Nixon

Why Reading Is Not Natural

Reading is not natural, but speaking is. These simple facts, however scientifically sound, are some of the most difficult for both educators as well as parents to grasp.

Because of this widespread belief otherwise, the process of learning to read, write, and interpret text is seen as something that all children should just do. Rather than simply expecting reading to be learned on its own, reading intervention should be the norm, not the exception.

Why Speaking Is Natural

The human brain is hardwired for speech. From our earliest days, humans of all backgrounds and cultures will begin making speech sounds. These “coos” slowly evolve into words and, eventually, sentences. By the age of 16 to 24 months, most developmentally and neuro-typical children will form basic sentences regardless of any intervention or instruction by mom or dad. Basically, his or her immersion in language is enough to ensure that the human baby will acquire speech (Moats & Tolman, 2009).

Why Reading Is Not Natural

On the flip side, the process of decoding that speech is not a natural process for the human brain. This very fact is evidenced by the dozens of human cultures who have rich oral traditions and yet lack a written system of recording those traditions. And even in our culture, reading is a relatively new skill certainly for the broad population. Even in the 1600’s, 200 years after the invention of the printing press, only 30% of the population was literate.

And so, not surprisingly, while there are parts of the brain dedicated to understanding and expressing language, there is no reading lobe. Reading is not one of those natural skills we are born to do.

And unfortunately, reading is not easy – reading and writing involve several steps. First, the reader must be able to recognize the phonemes or the individual sounds inside words. Next, he or she must understand what is known as the alphabetic principal, or the written coding of those phonemes, a process which varies from culture to culture. Then, once acquired, these skills must be applied to written text in a rapid and fluent manner. This ability depends on the reader possessing a strong vocabulary as well as understanding the basic syntactic and grammatical rules of their language. Finally, the reader must also comprehend the words they have read by thinking critically about them and applying them to their own experiences and their understanding of the world. This final step is one that takes 8-16 years to develop after a young child initially learns his or her ABCs (Lyon, 2000).

Why We Need Intervention

Because reading is an unnatural, multi-step process, the only way to teach children and adults to read and comprehend what they are reading is through direct, individualized instruction and routine intervention. This translates to teachers and parents taking time to specifically address individual gaps in any of the above-mentioned steps. For many children, the only way to learn the decoding and comprehension process inherent in reading skills is through targeted work that many educational systems and programs lack.

If your child needs extra reading help, consider trying one of Gemm Learning’s individualized reading programs.


Lyon, G.R. (January/February 2000) Why reading is not natural. LDA Newsbriefs 38(4). Retrieved from http://www.ldanatl.org/aboutld/teachers/teaching_reading/not_natural.asp

Moats, L. & Tolman, C. (2009) Speaking is natural; reading and writing are not. Retrieved from http://www.readingrockets.org/article/28758/


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