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4 Things We (Really) Know About Learning to Read

A beginning to the end of the "reading wars." (Maybe.)

CC0/Public Domain
Source: CC0/Public Domain

The “reading wars” have raged from most of the past century. Most often characterized as between the advocates of “phonics” versus “whole language” in early reading instruction, this “Great Debate” is perhaps most clearly described by the late Jeanne Chall, in her 1967 book of the same name, as centered around the question: “Do children learn [to read] better with a beginning method that stresses meaning or one that stresses learning the code?" The answer is, of course, both!

But one can hardly blame policymakers and teachers for wanting answers that are a bit more specific, and a new research review by Castles, Rastle, and Nation (2018) recently published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest aims to provide them, by not only laying out what we do know, based on solid research from a variety of philosophical and methodological perspectives, but also delineating what we still need to find out, and calling for “an end to the reading wars and … an agenda for instruction and research in reading acquisition that is balanced, developmentally informed, and based on a deep understanding of how language and writing systems work.”

In this blog entry, we will discuss some of the major findings from this review that point to what we really do know about learning to read, while in the next we will consider some of the questions the authors feel remain as yet unanswered, that should be the focus of our research moving forward.

Oral language development serves as a vital foundation for reading.

For most beginners, reading in their native language is initially the process of matching written words to spoken words they already know, so the more words they know, the more they have a chance of reading. Children’s familiarity with the patterns of their language—its syntax and grammar—are equally important, because such cues, combined with even an incomplete or slightly incorrect phonetic pronunciation, can often help a novice reader identify a word. For example, a beginning reader who initially sounds out the word snapped as “snap-ped” will usually correct herself if she is reading it in a sentence like, “Bob snapped the lid shut,” because she knows, even if subconsciously, the ways past tenses are pronounced in English.

And of course, to understand what they’ve read [the end goal of all reading], novice readers also need to know the meanings of the words in a text. No amount of phonetic decoding or syntactic knowledge will help a child read the above sentence with any understanding if she has never heard the top of a container called a “lid.”

Much research has demonstrated that children’s oral language abilities at school entry statistically predict their eventual reading comprehension. This is not to say that children with initially lesser oral language skills cannot become good readers with good teaching and support, but children who come to school speaking fluently in complex sentences with a rich vocabulary are in the best position to start reading. So one of the best things parents can do to prepare their young children for reading is to talk with them about all kinds of things—often, at length, and using lots of interesting words.

Beginning readers typically need some help to “crack the [alphabetic] code.”

As mentioned above, in an alphabetic system like English, the first step toward real reading is recognizing that the letters on the page represent sounds that combine to make familiar spoken words. But children rarely if ever induce this alphabetic principle for themselves just from exposure to print; virtually all require some help to develop this insight. There is a lot of good evidence that systematic, explicit instruction in the most regular sound-symbol relationships, what most people call phonics, is very helpful to most beginning readers because it provides them with a tool to begin identifying simple words in texts for themselves.

However, the most crucial elements seem to be the alphabetic principle itself and a repertoire of the basic letter sounds and a few, very common phonetic patterns (e.g., silent-e), and the best evidence calls for teaching these early and for a relatively short time. There is no solid evidence that continuing to focus on phonics past the first couple years of reading instruction or teaching more complex phonetic patterns (such as the eight ways to pronounce -ough, as in tough, dough, through, cough, bought, thorough, drought, and hiccough) is beneficial. What evidence we have suggests that, after they catch on to the basic “code,” most children continue to learn new words and those with variant pronunciations most easily through exposure to text, i.e., through reading itself.

Skilled readers no longer depend (mostly) on alphabetic decoding.

Anyone who has ever listened to a novice reader knows that alphabetic decoding is a laborious process that takes substantial time and cognitive effort. Yet most skilled readers easily read more than 200 words a minute. They can read that fast because they read most words “by sight;” that is, they automatically identify and access the meaning of most words directly from their printed form, without first mentally translating them to spoken words. This leaves them with much more working memory to devote to comprehension, which is essential as texts become more complex and meaningful than “the cat sat on the mat.”

This is not the whole story, though. Even skilled readers fall back on the slower decoding process when faced with an unfamiliar word, or a nonsense word like frip or glumph. And research using priming effects and homophones suggests that skilled readers still do process the sounds of even familiar words, not in order to read them, but as they read them. For example, in timed exercises, skilled readers are less likely to identity the statement, “A rows is a flower” as false than the similar looking, but less similar-sounding statement, “A rocs is a flower.” If they do correctly identify the first statement as false, it takes them longer. Clearly, they are in some way mentally accessing the sound, as well as the appearance, of the word rows, even though in this case doing so is actually interfering with an accurate reading. This “dual pathway” system, accessing the image and sound of a word somewhat simultaneously, is remarkably efficient, allowing us to flexibly emphasize the process that helps us most in the current reading task, and is probably also what allows us to read aloud fluently. It is the generally accepted theory in the field today and supported by evidence from neurological studies as well.

However, just because skilled readers read most words by sight does not mean that novice readers should be taught this way. Because English, unlike some other alphabetic languages, has a number of high frequency words with irregular letter-sound patterns, it is probably useful to teach children to recognize some of the most common of these words (like have, does, the, and said) by sight, since they are so frequently encountered in text, and attempts to “sound them out” will only lead to frustration. But just as there is no real evidence for the efficacy of teaching phonics much beyond the initial stages of reading, so is there no evidence that making children memorize long lists of “sight words,” up to hundreds in each grade, actually helps children become better readers. Indeed, deliberately teaching the requisite words by sight is pragmatically not possible, since it is estimated that the average student from fourth grade on learns to read approximately 3000 new words a year, or nearly 60 new words per week.

Normally developing readers learn most of the words they can read through encountering them multiple times in text, puzzling them out at first from alphabetic and other cues, and then gradually developing and storing in long term memory an easily accessed, high quality lexical representation of that word, eventually including all its multiple forms (e.g., adapt, adapting, adaptation, adaptable) and meanings (adaptation can mean “a biological process whereby species evolve to meet changing environmental conditions” or “a version of a literacy or artistic work made for a different genre or audience”). During this process, readers also develop an awareness of the morphological structure of their language, that is, the groups of letters that typically carry or modify the meanings of words, including prefixes like re- (again) and suffixes like -ly (in such a fashion).

Reading comprehension, the ultimate goal of all reading, is a “task of immense complexity,” affected by and requiring the coordination of multiple factors.

Reading comprehension is perhaps best described as the ongoing construction of a mental model of the meaning of a written text. Many of the factors discussed above ultimately contribute to reading comprehension, but so do several other sorts of knowledge.

Vocabulary knowledge is basic and essential; the simplistic sentence “A cat sat on a mat,” may be easy to sound out, but it cannot be actually read — that is, comprehended — without knowing what a cat and a mat are. Vocabulary knowledge is also a proxy for the more complex general background knowledge required to understand most written texts. Because both reading and writing are effortful, authors rarely include in written texts all of the information necessary for comprehension, expecting readers to draw upon their background knowledge to fill in gaps and to the draw inferences necessary to gain a full understanding of the meaning.

Consider the following opening to a hypothetical short story:

Rikel woke to the cows’ lowing and cursed the darkness as he stubbed his toe getting out of bed. But then, he always had to get up in darkness this time of the year. He pumped some water into the sink, shivering as he washed his hands, splashed his face, and slicked down his hair into some kind of order. Then he grabbed his coat, put his pistol in his pocket, and walked out to the barn under a sky still filled with stars.

An experienced and knowledgeable reader will infer much that is not explicitly stated here. It is winter, as implied by the early morning darkness and cold. The protagonist of the passage is probably a farmer, most likely one with dairy cows, since these are the sort of cows that require attendance early in the morning. We don’t know his age, but he is probably an adult, or having to function as one, since he is carrying a pistol and seems to be solely responsible for the cows, but not very old, since he still has trouble keeping his hair slicked down. We even get some inkling of his character, since he is irritable upon awakening at what seems to be a usual time, and yet does not even consider shirking his responsibility for the cows. He is also the type of person to notice a sky full of stars, even though he is cold and half asleep. An astute reader will hypothesize that the story is not set in the current time and place, since most modern farmers have hot water, which they no longer have to pump, and few carry pistols to the barn routinely; the pistol also implies some sort of present, ongoing threat. Whether this is a piece of historical fiction, perhaps set in the frontier period of the American West, or maybe a work of fantasy, set in an more primitive and dangerous alternative world, is yet to be seen, though the unusual name Rikel might suggest the latter. All of these understandings are based not on explicit statements, but on cues scattered by the author that require background knowledge about seasons and farming and plumbing, historic and modern, to interpret. Without the inferences this background knowledge makes possible, this beginning scene not only makes much less sense, but is also likely to be much less engaging to any reader who is left to wonder in frustration, “Why is it dark?” “Why are the cows making noise?” and “What’s with the pump and the pistol?”

Comprehending this passage also requires basic syntactic knowledge of English; for example, that he in the second sentence refers to Rikel, and that the commas in sentences three and four demarcate a series of actions.

Finally, a skilled reader will engage in comprehension monitoring as he reads this passage. That is, either automatically or deliberately, he will be constantly checking himself, to see if his construction of the passage meaning is making sense. When he come across a puzzling bit, perhaps like the mention of the pistol, he may even backtrack in the text to see if he has missed anything. Comprehension monitoring is probably the most universally used of the comprehension strategies, and certainly the one most agreed upon in the research literature, but different readers may use any of a variety of other strategies to ensure comprehension, depending on their purpose(s) and motivation(s) for reading.

All of these elements are intertwined and interrelated, and they are also reciprocally related to reading comprehension itself.

This is one reason that reading comprehension is so difficult to measure reliably. For example, problems with basic decoding significantly impair reading comprehension, in part, because they take up working memory capacity that is then unavailable for meaning construction, but engaged reading (that is, reading when you really want to understand what you read) is one of the best ways to improve basic decoding, as well as other reading skills. Furthermore, while no interventions designed to enhance working memory have been shown to improve reading ability, there is some evidence that extensive reading improves verbal working memory. We know that background knowledge is the source of much vocabulary knowledge, but learning new vocabulary through reading also adds to a reader’s general background knowledge. In fact, after the age of five or six, we learn most of our new vocabulary through reading, rather than conversation. Basic syntactic knowledge, like the uses of gendered pronouns and the placement of adjectives and verbs in relation to their subjects, is necessary to comprehend even the simplest sentence in any language. In turn, it is mainly through reading that we develop a knowledge of the denser syntax of written text, which employs more complex grammar, with longer phrases and clauses, more connectives and more passive voice than does spoken language.

All of this leads to the authors’ final conclusion, with which we strongly concur:

It is children’s own extensive, varied, and rich experience in reading that undoubtedly plays the most important role in their transition from novice to expert readers…teaching children to read and then providing opportunities for varied, extensive, and successful reading experience is fundamental.

The authors also acknowledge that we know a lot less about what motivates children to engage in this kind of wide and deep reading, a question we will take up, along with others they pose, in our next blog entry.

Until then, since we have only been able to hit the highlights of this well-researched and -written review, if you want to go more deeply into the research on learning to read, we strongly recommend the original article (accessible through Google Scholar).


Castles, Anne, Kathleen Rastle, and Kate Nation. "Ending the reading wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert." Psychological Science in the Public Interest 19, no. 1 (2018): 5-51.

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