How Do Kids Learn To Read?

Phonics? Whole language? Some of each?

Learning to read is a complex process and adherence to just one instruction method, either phonics or whole language, doesn’t really make sense. How, then, can parents understand how their children are learning? How exactly do kids learn to read?

In 2000, the National Reading Panel, described a sequence of five components of effective reading instruction that result in the following:

1. Children begin to have phonemic awareness, or the understanding that language is made up of separate sounds. For example, the word “cat” is composed of three sounds: C, A and T.

2. They then learn to associate these sounds of speech (phonemes) with letters of the alphabet, or phonics.

3. Eventually, they begin to have language fluency and the ability to automatically recognize specific words.

4. Children then need to understand what they are reading, which is where vocabulary development comes in.

5. Finally, bringing it all together, children need help with text comprehension.

Along with the five steps comes the need for good consistent instruction, with a lot of literature, writing and motivation, so that children understand the reasons for reading.

Interest level and background also tie into a child’s ability to read for meaning in various subject matters. For example, if a child is interested in marine life and has taken family excursions, watched TV programs and read books on that topic, then that child will be able to read about marine life with greater ease. She’ll also be able to apply to other topics the reading skills she has developed by immersing herself in learning about marine life.

NEXT: What to look for in your child’s reading classroom.