Reading's Not Just Second Nature

Reading expert Jeanne Chall explains how kids learn to read, and what parents can do to help.
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Updated on: January 4, 1998

Reading's Not Just Second Nature

According to the late Jeanne Chall, a renowned reading specialist and professor emerita at Harvard University, reading isn't something that comes naturally -- like learning to speak does. We asked Dr. Chall to explain how kids learn to read.

How do Children Learn to Read?
Reading is a learned skill -- it's crucial that parents understand this! After all, if we didn't need instruction, then there wouldn't be so many illiterate people. Illiterate people are smart -- they were just never taught to read.

Most of the recent controversy over how to teach reading -- whether to use the method of whole language or phonics -- has died down. (Note: In short, "whole language" emphasizes literature and word meanings, while "phonics" teaches children to sounds out letters and blend them to form words.) Everyone now wants a balanced program, a balance between literature and phonics.

A lot of the talk about whole language misrepresented reading as being something that comes naturally, like learning to talk. This isn't true. One important thing that has to be learned is the relationship between the alphabet and speech sounds.

In my research, I have seen that most children learn to sound out words in the first, second, or third grade. This is phonics. If a child can't make this connection between the alphabet and sounds, then reading can be very difficult. This might be a sign of a learning problem like dyslexia -- dyslexics have great difficulty connecting sounds with letters and blending letters. Kids with dyslexia take much longer to get it, but once they get it they advance very quickly.

Once Kids Learn to Read, How do They Continue to Make Progress?
What schools and teachers do to help kids read is very important. When kids first come to school, they have a great spoken vocabulary from being read to and from watching TV. So as they begin to read, their reading vocabulary has to catch up to the spoken vocabulary.

By third and fourth grade, the textbooks that kids read from contain words that are beyond their spoken vocabulary. The task of reading then becomes to help improve children's language.

As third- and fourth-grade readers are introduced to new words through reading, they may sound out words without knowing what they mean. They must then look these words up. At this age, kids read books for different subjects in school-- some of their reading is literature, but they'll probably read for science and geography also. This additional reading means they will have to read at a good rate.

What Can Parents do if Their Child isn't Reading at a Good Rate?
If a child isn't reading at a good rate, then his or her parent must find out why. I don't recommend that parents try to solve their children's reading problems on their own. They can get a specialist to do that. Parents must be on the lookout for progress. If a child isn't progressing as he should, then the parents must try to get to the bottom of the problem. They can ask for an explanation that makes sense from a professional tutor or reading specialist at the child's school.

Parents should also remember that reading is important for all levels for language and thinking. If kids spend most of their time watching TV, then there is no time for reading. And when kids aren't reading as much as they should, their language level doesn't advance.

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