Learning To Read Can Be One Of Life’s Most Difficult Hurdles
Learning to read is a high stakes road that can be fraught with difficulty. This list of the 10 scariest things about the journey to reading proficiency is a good reminder for parents of the conflicting goals and opinions that need to be managed along the way.
#1. Every Child Has A Different “Ready To Read” Age
Forcing a child to read too early could turn them off for life. Not engaging a willing reader with more and more challenging books may lead to boredom and a lack of engagement in reading.
So, no pressure. You just have to figure out your child’s “ready to read” age… and don’t get it wrong!
Quite a few skills need to be in place before your child is reading-ready. This includes sound language processing for phonics, attention and the working memory skills needed for reading comprehension.
Reading also requires a reasonable word vocabulary, not only words, but an understanding of how words are categorized. This categorization of words is how language is organized in the brain. It requires an ability to observe and think while listening. Finally, reading comprehension requires an understanding of grammar and sentence syntax. This also requires the ability to listen and observe how sentences are constructed, etc.
The cognitive skills (processing, working memory, focus) can take a while to develop and only then can an understanding of the language (vocabulary, grammar, etc.) start to develop.
For may children, the cognitive skills and the ability to start observing language do not develop until 5 or 6 years of age. This is why some European nations do not start formal reading instruction until children turn 7. Meanwhile, the pressures in the USA are headed in the opposite direction with reading skills being measured at earlier ages.
#2. Learning To Read Takes Years — So Much Can Go Wrong
It was Malcolm Gladwell who came up with the theory that true mastery of a skill takes 10,000 hours. That sounds about right for reading, where reading is defined as reading comprehension with metacognition, the ability to self-regulate while reading. The hope is most students will be proficient readers around the end of 10th grade.
There is an unavoidable sequence of reading skills that need to be acquired when learning to read. First, first you need to learn your alphabet and letter sounds. Then you need to learn to decode, and then to spell regular words and irregular words. Then you need to build vocabulary and language structure knowledge required for literal reading comprehension. And then comes the hard part, you need to learn how to think while reading — to make implications, connect to prior knowledge, etc. — and how to self-correct and self-regulate, metacognition.
The only way to become a proficient reader is, as Malcolm Gladwell suggests, to read. If along they way you have a bad experience related to reading — maybe being humiliated reading out loud in class or one too many fights with a parent over reading at home — you may disengage and not put in the many hours needed to become a great reader.
#3. Reading Is Not Learned Naturally
It’s no accident that while most children start walking and then start talking and roughly similar ages, reading readiness is all over the place. Some children have their letter sounds down at 3 years of age and are reading Harry Potter at 8. Other children, who will go on to be perfectly good readers, don’t get started with reading until 5 or 6.
This range of development occurs because reading is a relatively new invention for humans. Literacy rates were under 20% all around the world in 1550 –mainly a skill mastered by the well-off, reaching 50% around 1800 and 90% around 1900 (Max Roser). This means learning to read has only been considered an essential life skill for 150 years or so.
Consequently, while there is a language region of the brain, a visual region, a physical coordination, etc. — and so we all listen, talk, see and walk naturally, at around similar ages — there is no region for learning to read. Each brain needs to figure out how to read, which is based on its available inputs.
This is where the trouble starts. Good readers with naturally sound auditory processing skills have sound phonemic awareness. They hear the sounds inside words easily. This means they are able to simply connect text to word memory acquired through listening.
For as much as 40% of the population though, varying degrees of auditory processing difficulties cause muddiness in word memory, how sounds are heard. This leads to brains working on alternative reading methods such as word memorization. Maybe in 10,000 years there will be a reading region in the brain. But for now, there is not and so we all experience reading a little differently.
#4. First Impressions Can Define Your Attitude To Reading
Many high school students are not engaged readers because they get off to a bad start, including:
- Being forced to start learning to read too early
- Being forced to do 20 minutes of reading each night when 2 minutes is torture
- The feeling that as a child you were disappointing parents and teachers with your reading
- Regular humiliation from reading out loud in class or to parents
- Connecting reading to only negative emotions
Reading is a long distance race. A bad start that leads to a lack of engagement in reading can be disastrous. A study by Nagy and Anderson (1984) found good readers in 5th grade read 10x as many words as poor readers. ,
A child has to want to read. There really is no other way to build proficiency. A traumatic, troubled or even unpleasant first introduction to reading in those first 3-4 years of learning to read can create a negative connection that lingers.
It’s a a scary thought.
#5. Many Struggle Despite Getting More Help Than Ever
Nothing says learning to read is not easy like our national literacy statistics. It depends on what study you use and how you define reading, but the most trusted studies, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for 2013 found that only 35 percent of fourth graders and 36 percent of eighth graders are proficient readers. Furthermore, in 2013, 22% of 8th graders were not reading even at a basic level.
America’s performance on international reading tests paint a similar picture. Despite spending almost twice as much per student on education as we did 30 years ago, reading outcomes have barely budged.
Reading is a tough skill to master.
#6. Computer Games and Social Media Are Tough Competition
As enumerated in many studies, most recently by a Scholastic study of 2,558 adults in America, children are reading less and less. The report states that 62% of 6-8 year-old children say they either love or like reading books for fun. This percentage drops to just 46% for 15-17-year-olds.
The lessening engagement in reading is mirrored by increased activity in social media and computer games.
Actually, the impact of electronics may be even more insidious than just a competition for time. Computer games make focusing easy — they are designed to engage. To the extent that computer games and TV time replace activities that require engagement, children are deprived of the opportunity to practice executive attention, a critical reading skill.
#7. Reading Skills Influence Career Outcomes
If children do not learn to read properly, the chances of securing a good job in later life are significantly reduced. US Department of Labor studies indicate that workers with less than functional rates of literacy have fewer employment opportunities, not exactly a shocking conclusion.
Reading determines high school graduation and success in college. Conversely, poor literacy is associated with unemployment or worse. According to the US Department of Education 60% of America’s prison inmates are illiterate and 85% of all juvenile offenders have reading problems.
Reading skills impact life outcomes.
#8. Reading Difficulties Undermine Love of Learning
It’s a shame that such a difficult skill is instrumental to learning. It means that for many, the difficulties encountered in learning turns kids off school.
Their early days are marked by humiliation in not being able to master what their peers can. In later years, the transition from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’ that occurs during the early years of education is one that marks many children being left behind in the classroom and ultimately disengaging from education.
#9. The School Can’t Wait For Your Child To Be Reading Ready
As we discussed above, children come to reading in their own time. And just because a child may not take to reading early on does not mean he cannot become a good reader.
In a perfect world, the best approach is to wait for a child to develop the necessary skills and an interest in reading, and then launch into reading instruction full on.
But this is not a perfect world, especially for schools. Regulators have decided that the best way to make sure “no child is left behind” or that “every child achieves” (the names of the last two Education Bills) is to have every child learn to read on the same timetable. Never mind that every child is different.
This standards-based approach means schools are under pressure to get children to certain milestones every year, starting in 1st grade. Teacher salaries can depend on these standards being met, school funding may depend on these standards being met. Schools are pretty much forced to get your child to reading standards he may not be able to meet, risking turning him off reading for life.
If you want to take a long term view to reading as we discussed earlier, you should be aware that this approach may not gel with what the school has in mind for your child.
#10. Kids Feel The Pressure All Around
It is plainly obvious to a child at an early age that reading is important. Everyone is trying to teach him to read — his parents, grand parents, teachers, older siblings, everybody. It is also obvious to your child that if he is struggling with learning to read that he is letting everyone down.
Even worse, if he is asked to read out loud at home or in class, he is letting everyone down and he is humiliated at the same time.
Kids feel the pressure. This adds to the trials and tribulations of teaching your child to read. It’s high stakes, you want to keep pressing, but you don’t want to make your child feel like they are disappointing you or worse feel humiliated.
Final Thoughts About Learning To Read
This article paints a somewhat intimidating picture about the road to lifelong reading. For many though, this road is not at all unpleasant. For them, phonological awareness is sound from the start, decoding is straight forward and reading takes off.
For most of the remainder of children, reading proficiency is a realistic goal. They will need help with the fundamentals, the phonics in particular, before reading is easy and natural. But once that important precursor to a regular reading habit is mastered, the road to reading proficiency is reasonably straight forward.
The main point of this article is to alert parents to difficulties involved in reading. It’s a miraculous skill. If your child is having difficulties learning to read, we hope the factors above will be helpful to you in plotting a path forward.
We hope also that it will help you see that learning to read is a long haul process, and that while it takes a great deal of energy and effort, it is important to keep a love of learning and a love of reading intact while the mechanics fall into place. Generally, this means helping to make reading easy and more natural early on, focusing on the fundamentals.