Reading Doesn't Come Naturally
to the Human Brain
While listening and speaking are natural to humans, reading and writing are man-made inventions that need to be taught to most students. This is puzzling to some of us who learned to read easily, or who can't remember exactly how or when we learned to read.
In fact, around 95% of humans can learn to read with the right instruction, but they need to be taught the skills or competencies within the first three critical years of formal schooling. (Learn more about the often misunderstood difference between teaching Early Reading and Skilled Reading here).
Some children will come to school with little knowledge of reading, while others are already well on the way when they begin on their first day. The difference between these children has been studied in detail by neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists, who have found that learning to read depends on the relative strength of specific pathways in the brain. These pathways strengthen as a result of practice in certain skills - particularly the skill of recognising letters (and groups of letters) and the sounds they represent. These is called letter-sound correspondences or grapheme (written symbols) - phoneme (the smallest unit of sound represented by a letter or letters) correspondences.
Some people think that children also learn to read by listening to an adult read to them. However, learning to read isn't just about listening to others read, even though it is one of the most wonderful and important experiences of childhood. While children might learn the rhythms of language, feel the emotion of the story, spark imaginative worlds and feel the closeness of the shared experience with an adult, they are not actually learning to read when being read to. Even those children who have had hundreds of books read to them may still find learning to read a significant challenge. This is because every child has different experiences that affect the strength of their neural pathways.
As you can see in the diagram below (adapted from Nation 2019), there are two pathways to reading comprehension. One is the sound pathway that is used by early readers to connect the sounds within words they know to the letters or groups of letters on the page (shown in red). So a child might recognise the word 'ship' when it is said to them and understand what it means, but to read it, the child needs to connect the letters they see on the page 's'-'h'-'i'-'p' to the sounds 'sh', 'i' and 'p' that they already know through language.
This is why teaching phonemic awareness is so important in learning to read and why it is a foundational skill.
The second pathway (shown in green) is the lexical pathway, which means it connects to the 'mental dictionary' we all have that stores words (and many other things) in long term memory. This pathway is for words we have seen multiple times so we have very cleverly stored them in our long-term memory so we can retrieve them at will. It's a very personal mental dictionary - which means that every person will store these words according to their ability to do so. Children with dyslexia, children with ADHD, children who are learning English as a second language, or who have experienced any kind of long-term trauma, like poverty, abuse or neglect, will all find storing words in their
mental dictionary a challenge.
For some children, the connections between their working memory and long-term memory is weak, some children have stronger connections to other parts of the brain, while others, particularly those who have experienced long-term trauma, have strong activation to the 'fight or flight' mechanism that makes embedding learning particularly challenging.
For these children, it is essential to teach them explicitly and give them multiple exposures so they have an opportunity to learn and store the information in long-term memory. It isn't impossible! It just means you will need to change the way you approach your teaching in whole class situations so everyone can learn. Once the grapheme-phoneme (symbol-sound) correspondences are stored in long-term memory, they are always available and able to be retrieved instantly whenever needed. What this means for your students is tantamount to life-changing. Students who seemed to slip through the cracks will be able to learn to read and you will no longer have to pass them up the grades without the skills they need.
The point is that teaching 95% of children to read is possible. It is up to you to arm yourself with the knowledge you need to teach more children to learn to read.
Remember that you are not the only one changing your practice. The phenomenal growth of the SoR over the course of the past few years is testament to the thousands of teachers who are realising the impact they can have on more students in their classrooms. So you can be confident in knowing your community is growing and you are in the company of other teachers like yourself who want to make a difference.