The reading brain: are we born to read?

There will always be debate about the best way to ‘teach’ reading – but one thing is certain, it is a skill that must be learned. The ability to read is not something that a child will just ‘pick up’ in time. Some people disagree, but it’s my firm belief that no matter how much a child is surrounded with printed words they will not be able to read and understand those words without some instruction.

That belief is based in scientific fact. We are not born with the neural pathways necessary for reading and writing.

As we develop through early childhood, it is a combination of nature and nurture that enables our brains to form connections that allow us to learn the skills of reading and writing.

Can you crack the code?

Learning to read is much like figuring out a code. We must learn to associate sounds with written symbols – or letters.

To read a whole word we first need to pull it apart into its smallest units of sound, represented by individual and combinations of letters. Then we can put all the sounds back together again to say the whole word and finally interpret the word’s meaning.

There are roughly 44 sounds used in English, and 26 letters in the English alphabet. That means some letters need to be combined to form some sounds. The sounds are called ‘phonemes’. Learning the connections between the phonemes and the written letters is what happens in our kids’ phonics lessons at school. You can listen to the phonics sounds here, and if you haven’t got your free reading guide yet, grab it now for a full introduction to phonics.

But before a child can look at a word and be able to break it up into units of sound, that child needs to be able to hear the sounds in words. When you listen to speech and can recognise the distinct units of sound, it is called ‘phonemic awareness’. Once this idea is understood, a child can learn that the different units of sound they hear can be represented by printed forms – letters.

So when you say the words dog and fog, a child can hear the individual sounds – d-o-g and f-o-g – and recognise that it is the first sound, the ‘d’ and ‘f’ that is different in each word.

Phonemic awareness is hugely important when children are learning to read. Children who struggle to hear the different sounds that make up words will also have difficulty with connecting the written form to the sounds. In short, they will find it harder to read and spell.

If you want to try some phonemic awareness activities with your child take a look at this post over on the US-based Reading Rockets website. Scroll to the bottom for links to various games – they are aimed at teachers with a class full of children, but you can easily adapt the activities to use at home.

Next section: How does the brain learn to read?

Missed the beginning of the guide? Start here!