What has scientific research taught us about how children learn to read?



I think scientific research on reading and the issues that go along with it, how children develop, how they vary, the kinds of skills that reading draws upon has progressed enormously and has yielded findings that are absolutely rock solid.  So an example would be … we’ve known, studies of children’s behavior and adults’ behavior, and now more recently from studies of the brain, that the hallmark of skilled reading is the integration of print with what a person knows about the spoken language. 

A child who’s learning to read already knows something about spoken language, quite a lot, and their problem is to figure out how print relates to spoken language.  A child who is learning to read does not relearn language.  They learn how print, this new code, relates to the language they already know.  So we have behavioral studies that showed how closely integrated these codes were.  We could show them various kinds of lab studies. We could show them behavior of kids in classrooms. 

We can do them now using neuro imaging.  I think the neuro imaging research is really compelling.  Look at the brains of people who are better readers versus weaker readers.  Or when you looked at developmental change from being a beginning reader to a skilled reader.  The pattern that you see is that the people who are more skilled have integrated spoken and the written language at a neural level. 

It almost, if you are a skilled reader it really doesn’t even make sense to talk about language and print as separate kinds of codes, because they are so deeply integrated throughout the brain.  Well, if the integration of these systems is the hallmark of skilled reading and if educators have been paying attention to this research, would we have had reading wars over whether we should be encouraging methods that promote linking print and sound?  No, because we know that that’s actually a hallmark of what it means to be a skilled reader. 

What we should be thinking about is what’s the fastest and most efficient way to get the most kids to get through this stage of integrated, getting to see how print relates so that they can get on with the task of reading for various purposes and learning from what they read. So there’s a case where the research developed over decades, got more advanced as the methods became more advanced. It’s not at the level where any reasonable person could debate. It doesn’t turn on one lab or one funding agency or any one method. 

It’s an overwhelming success in the science and yet it’s had almost no effect on how educators think about reading, and indeed people are quite willing to keep fighting the reading wars endlessly.

Submitted by: Parents & Families
Topic: Beginning Reading, Interventions


Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About It. Basic Books.