Demystifying the science of reading #2: Learning to read is not an innate process

Why do some students develop as readers more easily than others? Why do most developing readers need more than being immersed in a language-rich environment? The answers lie in the brain and have major implications for teaching reading. In this installment of Teacher Tip Tuesday: Demystifying The Science of Reading, we’ll talk about the research behind how exactly we learn to read.

Learning to speak is an innate process. There are specific areas of the brain that are dedicated to oral language development. These areas in our brains, such as Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas, are responsible for processing the language input around us. Young children who are immersed in a speech-rich environment develop oral language. Essentially: we are hardwired to learn how to speak.

We also have areas of the brain dedicated to visual information processing. These areas work together to process visual cues from our environment, including written words. We’re hardwired for the task of making meaning of visual information.

There's just one problem: we are not hardwired to connect these dots.

Learning to read is not an innate process. Although we’re born with the tools, we are not born with the connections. For many students, learning to read will not happen as a result of access to and experience with books at their “just right” reading level. These students need to be explicitly taught. 

Reading is a very complicated act. Students must be taught to translate the symbols they see on a page (letters and words) into meaningful information. They then must connect those symbols to the background knowledge and vocabulary they have built through oral language and lived experience. So at its core, teaching reading is building a bridge between oral language and visual information processing. Proficient readers possess well-established foundational reading skills, enabling them to convert written words into spoken language, and the capacity to make meaning of what they read. There are many complex mental processes required to achieve this.

“Learning to read is a complex achievement, and learning to teach reading requires extensive knowledge and skills across the components of word recognition, language comprehension, spelling, and writing.”
Louisa Moats, Ed.D
Author and instructor

What does this mean for teachers?

It is important to remember that learning to read is not innate so that you as a teacher can properly address all the necessary components of reading. These include both functional reading skills (such as phonemic awareness and fluency) and knowledge-based competencies (such as background knowledge and vocabulary). While functional reading skills are finite and can be accurately measured and mastered, knowledge-based competencies are ongoing, starting from birth and continuing to grow and change over the course of a lifetime. As Louisa Moats states in her article Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, “Expert teaching of reading requires knowledge of language structure at all levels. Without such knowledge, teachers are not able to respond insightfully to student errors, choose examples for concepts, explain and contrast words and their parts, or judge what focus is needed in a lesson.”

In our next installment, we’ll break down effective reading instruction to help you excel in teaching reading, backed by science. 

Sources and further reading:

Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science by Louisa Moats

The Science of Reading by SCORE (State Collaborative on Reforming Education)

Ten Myths About Learning to Read by Sebastian Wren (Reading Rockets)

Speaking Is Natural; Reading and Writing Are Not by Louisa Moats and Carol Tolman (Reading Rockets)

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