As parents, we all want what’s best for our kids. We want them to grow up happy and successful. And we want to equip them with all the tools to do it. One of the most important of these is being a good reader. What we don’t often talk about, is how children’s cognitive and social development benefits from the process of learning to read.
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Learning to read call upon various skills and stimulates several parts of the brain. Mastering this skill provides massive benefits to a child’s future. Research shows that it’s critical to their overall well-being. It sets them up for academic success and fosters a lifelong love of learning.
Research shows that learning to read is a complex process that requires explicit instruction and practice. Parents and teachers play the primary roles in developing young readers. It’s important for them to understand how the process works and how to use the right strategies to produce proficient readers.
So pour a cup, and dive in with us to explore the top 6 reasons for why reading needs to be taught!
1. Reading is not a natural process
Learning to read and entering school are important early educational milestones. Reading is one of the most valuable skills developed during childhood, but it’s also one of the most cognitively challenging to acquire (Lyon, 1998).
A common misconception is that reading’s a “natural” process, like breathing or speaking. Humans are born with the potential to learn language, but our brains are not hardwired for learning to read. Reading is based on a written language system, which we humans created. It’s not a process of evolution. It’s a process that needs to be systematically taught.
We’ve been speaking to each other for up to 2 million years, but the alphabet is only 3,000 or so years old! When we speak to each other, the individual sounds aren’t usually heard by the listener. Most of us don’t “naturally” know that words are made up of smaller sound units.
Without instruction, most people can’t make the connections between the smallest units of speech sounds. And without the ability to recognize each speech sound, learning the alphabet, words, and sentences is much more difficult.
2. Developing reading skills is cognitively complex
Reading isn’t just about letters and words. It involves complex cognitive processes. In order to successfully learn to read, kids need to develop cognitive skills that support decoding and comprehension.
These are processes that need to be explicitly taught, since they aren’t innate abilities. And they need to be taught until these processes become automatic.
Decoding involves the ability to translate print into speech. It enables kids to quickly match letters or letter combinations to recognize patterns that make syllables and words.
This helps them blend those sounds into words. And it’s fundamental to helping kids learn to read fluently and comprehend what they’re reading. Two of the cognitive processes needed for kids to become great decoders include:
- phonological awareness (the ability to recognize and manipulate spoken parts of words and sentences – think “ears” only) and
- phonics (making the connection between sound and print – think “ears” AND “eyes”)
Comprehension skills help kids understand what they’re reading. These include metacognition, graphic and semantic organizers (like story maps or Venn-Diagrams), answering questions, recognizing structure and summarizing.
There are two main categories of reading comprehension:
- lower level processes (being able to translate written words into meaningful language)
- higher level processes (combining these units into coherent mental models).
3. Learning to read boosts academic success
Reading is the “key” that unlocks the door to all other subjects. When kids learn to read, they aren’t just able to read material for other subjects. They gain comprehension, critical thinking, and communication skills.
Research shows there’s a clear connection between reading proficiency and academic success. One study on early reading proficiency found that kids with the lowest reading scores account for 33% of all students, but they account for 63% of those who don’t end up graduating.
Skills gained from early reading proficiency that increase their overall academic success include:
- Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving. Reading skills involve training the brain to both decode and comprehend. This means kids’ brains learn to interpret and analyze information, which are the foundation of “critical thinking” required for other subjects.
- Enhanced Concentration. Reading requires focus and concentration. When kids learn to read, they develop the ability to sit with a book for longer and longer periods of time. It helps them to “flex” the parts of the brain involved in sustained attention. By training this part of their brains, kids focus better.
- Confidence Boost. When kids learn to read independently, it’s a huge confidence-builder. A confident reader is more likely to participate in class, ask questions, and explore new concepts. This sets them up for more success in school.
- Love of Learning. Kids who read well are more likely to enjoy learning other subjects. It opens up a world of knowledge, adventure, and imagination. When kids love to read, they’re more motivated to explore different subjects and approach the world around them with more curiosity.
4. Reading instruction develops important language skills
Oral language is a natural process, not a learned skill like reading. But oral language and reading skills are deeply interconnected. They both rely on many of the same skills, like vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and phonological awareness (being able to understand that spoken words are made up of individual sounds).
One study on language and reading found that in various countries when parents read to their kids from an early age it enhances language acquisition and improves their early reading success.
And, according to a National Library of Medicine study there’s “a positive link between parents’ involvement in home literacy practices, and children’s later language and literacy skills.”
In other words, parents who use language-rich activities, like conversation, storytelling and word games give their kids a big leg up.
Kids who have stronger language skills end up being better readers, communicators and learners overall.
5. Reading enhances social skills
Even though there are plenty of academic benefits to formal literacy instruction at home and school, there are plenty of social benefits as well. Research shows that much like oral language skills, there’s a connection between social skills and reading.
Reading gives kids ideas and topics that don’t come up in everyday conversation. Since kids are naturally curious, these ideas motivate them to ask more questions and share these new ideas with their peers.
Different books provide characters who face situations and challenges. When kids relate to characters, it encourages them to think about how they might handle something similar in their own lives.
Parents and teachers can use various books to introduce kids to all kinds of places, cultures, and socio-economic situations. This fosters open-mindedness and acceptance towards people from various backgrounds.
Group reading, book clubs, or class discussions require collaboration and participation. These activities teach kids how to work effectively in teams, respect others’ opinions, and contribute constructively in group settings.
6. It helps build information and digital literacy
Kids are surrounded by digital devices and screens everywhere they go. Students eventually need to read online and electronic texts as well as print. Many people assume because kids grow up knowing how to use technology that they’re “digitally literate.”
But research shows that students today aren’t any more sophisticated than students in previous decades at finding and evaluating good sources. Kids need proper reading instruction that develops the cognitive processes needed for this.
As technology continues to evolve, so does the concept of information and digital literacy. People describe it in various ways, but the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) defines it as “…knowing when and why you need information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner.” Not surprisingly, developing great information and digital literacy skills is dependent on reading skills.
Teaching reading isn’t just important, it’s essential. It involves a number of cognitively complex skills and processes that require explicit instruction. Without strong reading skills, kids struggle academically and miss out on opportunities.
When kids are taught to read, they develop important language skills that make them better communicators. They increase in vocabulary, grammar, and writing skills. And develop better social skills. They have more empathy and understanding for others. Additionally, they have needed skills to become information and digitally “literate”, which is essential for higher education and careers.
Reading is a lifelong gift, one that parents and teachers alike can give to kids. Through deliberate instruction, they’ll be set up for success!