The reading brain: what’s the point of reading?

As parents we are often told we need to expose our children to books and other printed materials. This ensures there are opportunities to read often, but experts who make this recommendation are not suggesting that children will start reading spontaneously if books are left scattered around. Instead it’s about showing children the value of the written word.

We read books for enjoyment or education, but we also gather information about the world from a newspaper, come up with something for dinner using a recipe book and follow instructions for an activity in a comic or magazine.

When children can see that it’s the squiggles on a page – including on a web page – that provide information, they understand the purpose of reading.

When introducing the concept of reading to your child, there is much more to teach than just what the words say. Netmums has a new post all about preparing your child for reading with phonics, find it here.

A developing vocabulary

By regularly reading to your child you’re not only helping their phonological awareness develop and showing them why reading is important, you’re also widening their vocabulary.

A good vocabulary is another element that will help your child as they learn to read. The ultimate aim of teaching a child to read is to get them to a point where they can derive meaning from the words they read. This reading comprehension cannot exist without spoken language comprehension.

In other words, if you do not know what a word means when someone says it to you, you still won’t know what it means even if you can decode and read it.

This is where phonics experts and reading for pleasure enthusiasts are often at loggerheads – the argument is that without phonics children won’t be able to read at all, but without being able to understand the meaning of words children won’t enjoy reading and won’t gain anything from the activity. I’m not sure why this argument persists because to me it’s very clear we need to be able to do both.

Children who are regularly read to and spoken to will naturally have bigger vocabularies. These children have an advantage when learning to read as they already know the meaning of many of the words they read. They also know if they have pronounced a word correctly.

Encourage your child to ask about words they don’t know, or if you come across an unusual word when reading to them, make sure you explain it.

It’s these early exposures to language – hearing the patterns of speech as a parent reads a story, sings a nursery rhyme or chats to their child, discovering the purpose of the written word and developing a rich vocabulary –  that lay the foundation for a brain ready to learn to read and write. It’s worth remembering it won’t help your child if you rush ahead without first taking time with these steps.

When does reading become automatic?

“Automaticity is the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details required, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern or habit. It is usually the result of learning, repetition, and practice.” Automaticity – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Just as your child builds a vocabulary in the brain – words they know the meaning of when they hear them – they also begin to build a list of words that can be recognised on sight.

Probably one of the first words your child will know on sight is their own name. But gradually more and more words are added to the list. Some of the words are ones that can’t easily be decoded using phonics methods (such as ‘the’, ‘was’ and ‘said’) but which your child is expected to learn in their first year of school because they are used so frequently.

Children vary in the number of times they need to practise reading a word before they can recognise it on sight. Research has shown that the average child needs to read a word between four and 14 times before they are able to read it automatically as a whole word.

It’s important, therefore, for a child to have a chance to practise reading at their current level before moving on, in order to become fluent readers. The reading books your child brings home from school do not need to be read once only and returned – if your child is willing, ask them to read it a few times.

And there’s no need to race through the book bands either if you don’t feel your child is fluent enough to move up a level. It’s worth considering, though, whether your child is engaged with the books or if you need to vary them a bit. If you have concerns about your child’s reading level, have a look at this brilliant post over on Parentdish: School bag snoops: How to not get obsessed by your child’s reading level.


Next section: What is reading for meaning?

Missed the beginning of the guide? Start here!