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  • Writer's pictureM. Kovack

Let's Slow Down a Little... Is What we are Doing Really Helpful?

As soon as our children are born, we are told to fill our home with books! Read, read, READ every chance you get!

When young children enter kindergarten, parents are again encouraged to read with their little ones every night. There are charts, stickers, and contests for "most number of books read". By contrast, there is a lot less focus on how to read these books. The campaigns to read with children do not often centre on "most number of conversations had", or "most vocabulary learned", or "most connections made", or "most leads followed". And yet, this makes a profound difference, not only in children's ability to read later on, but also in their enthusiasm and drive to read throughout the rest of their lives.

Likewise, as nightly reading aloud in kindergarten very quickly morphs into "most number of books read by the children", parents often feel stumped as to how to help their children read the simple little books that come home from school. They look easy enough, but it is often a mystery as to how they are supposed to help their children know how to read the words. Parents are encouraged to listen to their children read for 10 minutes every evening, but little attention is paid to how to do this. There is usually a little repetitive pattern (I see the..., I see the..., I see the...), so it looks like children are just supposed to memorize the words that repeat. For the words that do not repeat, there is usually a picture, so it makes sense to encourage children to look at that picture and guess what the word says, and perhaps even look at the first letter and use this for support.

All of this seems FAST. And it really may seem like it's working as children move through first grade. But by giving the message that we become skilled readers this way, we are sending the message that this is how children learn to read. Unfortunately, this message is so harmful to children with neurobiological challenges with phonological processing (approx. 5-20% of the population), it is actually a human rights issue (CLICK HERE for more information about the Ontario Human Rights Commission's Right to Read public inquiry this year). Furthermore, it is really an inefficient and less effective approach for everyone else.

Decades of high-quality research from many different disciplines - including research about what is happening in the brain when we read - have demonstrated that most of us do not, in fact, become skilled readers simply by reading a lot of pattern books and guessing at unknown words by 'thinking' about what word would 'make sense' based on its location in the sentence; its probability based on the story-line/picture; and/or its first letter.

Rather, we become skilled readers by developing a strong grasp of oral language through:

1) enriched conversations - both while reading aloud and in general; and

2) manipulating sounds in words (playing with rhyme, syllables, first sounds, and eventually individual sounds).

We also become skilled readers by developing a strong grasp of written language through:

1) understanding the connection between sounds and letters (beginning with the sounds in the alphabet, and the letters that represent those sounds); and

2) connecting the (approximately) 44 sounds we make when we speak to groups of letters (spelling patterns) through systematic and explicit teaching of spelling patterns and rules, and repeated practice with sounding out words using knowledge of spelling patterns that have been taught. (CLICK HERE for more comprehensive information about all of this from the Ontario branch of the International Dyslexia Assn.).

For some children, all of this is FAST. With seemingly little instruction, and/or with very little repetition, they learn to read quickly and easily. But these children still go through the same process when learning to read. The way their brain functions when it comes to reading puts them at an advantage (as do environmental factors, like experiences from home).

For most children, however, all of this is SLOW. It takes TIME to learn about the spelling patterns and rules. It takes TIME to practise sounding out words using this knowledge. But when children get the chance to practise sounding out words (individually, and in text) with patterns they have been taught, the brain then plops these words into an "automaticity" zone, and keeps them there. Never again will they have to rely on guessing, or thinking about what word would make sense there, or looking at the pictures for help to read that word.

The goal is to make ALL words sight words (automatic) - but guessing and memorizing strategies are the least effective ways to get there. In fact, for many children, they are harmful.


Castles, A., Rastle, K., & Nation, K. (2018). Ending the reading wars: Reading acquisition from

novice to expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19(1), 5-51. doi:10.1177/1529100618772271

International Dyslexia Association (2020). The International Dyslexia Association - Ontario Branch website. Retrieved

Kilpatrick, D. A., Joshi, R. M., & Wagner, R. K. (2019). Reading development and difficulties : Bridging the gap between research and practice. Cham: Springer International Publishing AG. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-26550-2

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