The reading brain: what is reading for meaning?

When a child comes across a word that their brain already recognises they can read it as a whole without needing to decode it. As a child commits more and more words to memory, their reading fluency improves.

So why is fluency important? Reading fluency matters because it is inextricably linked with reading comprehension. Put simply, the child that reads fluently can read words automatically, grouping words together to make meaning as they read. A child who cannot read fluently will instead be focused on decoding each word individually, which requires so much effort it leaves little for understanding what is being read.

This is one reason why very early reading books are so simple, resulting in many parents complaining they are boring. As very early readers have few words committed to memory they spend much of their reading time decoding. If the sentences were much more complex than ‘the cat sat on the mat’ it would be hard for the beginning reader to grasp what is going on. It’s often not that the books are so simple that they fail to hold a child’s attention, but rather that the book, despite being seemingly so easy, is still asking a lot of someone who is only just beginning to learn such a demanding skill.

At the beginning of this guide I explained that in simple terms reading is about deciphering a code. But we know it’s actually much more than that.

If reading was only a matter of deciphering a code then it would be a fairly worthless skill. We have to make meaning of what we have decoded. When we can do that we can read for pleasure and read to learn.

Many champions of reading for pleasure stress that encouraging a love of reading is the most important thing, and that drilling phonics will turn children off reading. I heartily agree that we should support a love of reading. But how can we love what we cannot understand? To have a love of reading we must be able to actually read – that means ‘decode’ the words on the page.

I think phonics is the best method for teaching reading but whichever method is used, reading comprehension can only happen when the words on the page can be recognised and the reader able to make sense of the words using their knowledge and vocabulary.

Because we now know that reading is a learned process that happens in the brain, to me there is no argument for or against phonics or reading for pleasure. Reading can only be a pleasurable activity once the process of reading has been mastered. Finding reading enjoyable will help with that – it will make a child want to learn – but it is not enough by itself.

Now you know how the brain enables us to learn to read, you know that it’s not an entirely natural process and the more you can help your child, the easier the process will be. You also know, though, that not all brains work the same, and sometimes things go a little wrong. When this happens the problems can be fixed, or at least helped, but only with intervention.

If you think your child has a problem with reading make sure you get the appropriate help as it’s unlikely that it will just right itself. That being said, brains develop at different rates and some children will get the hang of reading faster than others. Just as your child learned to walk and talk at a different time to their friends, they will learn to read at their own pace too. But just as you would seek advice if your child didn’t show any signs of learning to walk, seek advice if you have worries about their reading too.

A good place to start looking for information about reading intervention programmes is the Interventions for Literacy site, take a look at the ‘Parents’ page here.

Next section: Girls’ brains are different to boys’ brains

Missed the beginning of the guide? Start here!