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The Facts on Education: How Children Learn to Read

15 February 2011
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Back by popular demand, CEA and Dr. Ben Levin’s Knowledge Mobilization Team at OISE have teamed up to provide you with new one-page summaries on timely and relevant topics of interest to parents, trustees, teachers, and administrators, based on current empirical educational research. 

Please follow this link to access the first new Facts in Education summary, How Children Learn to Read 

Last year, 200 school boards subscribed to this series, which included the following topics: 

These inserts are written in plain language and provide our best interpretation of the body of research on each topic, serve to debunk some myths in education, and can be used in the following ways: 

  • Inserted into your school newsletters
  • Supplemented by adding information about your school’s current policy or practice around the issue
  • Posted to the news section of your website 
  • Used to enrich meetings with parents and teachers

Additional research resources are available online for each topic at: www.cea-ace.ca/facts-on-education

Four more summaries will be produced and distributed each month until the end of the academic year. Your comments and questions in relation to each topic are very welcome and can be posted here.

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As for reading:1.  Phonemic

As for reading:1.  Phonemic Awareness; Yes, we need to teach all the sounds, but we need to be sure and teach all the sounds.  This means three sounds for a; two sounds for c; two sounds for e; two sounds for g; three sounds for i; teach both k sound and k silent; teach both front and back of l sounds; teach both front and back of m; teach both front and back of n; teach three sounds for o; teach front and back of r; teach the fours sounds of u; teach the two sounds and the silent for y;   We need to teach these sounds "very slowly" and be very articulate (for the young kids be silly and slow) . I prefer to go over the sounds with sample words on the board.  As I do this, I help the students hear the indivdual sounds of the letters that make the words. Here I am teaching them the art of decoding using those sounds.  When I am finished, then help the students begin the exercise of using those sounds on the board to read their own library books.  Here I am teaching students the art of decoding.  Again, we are going slow, at the readers developed pace.  I mind you, we are also visualizing the words.  So if the book says, "The big red dog climbed into the fire truc, and drove away", I want that student to see that big red dog in their mind.

As for fluency instruction, this must come in time with experience.  I like the modeling of fluent reading whereby the reader uses changes tone, inflection, and pausing to create a sense of picture.  However the cruel, very improper notion of pace in reading for fluency for reading must stop.  The students are at very different levels of reading skill, bringing with them very different amounts of social vocabulary to draw from along with various skills at speaking in fluent words with much more variation in decoding, reflecting, visualizing, and enjoyment.  Reading is an abstract skill requiring more mental energy, so reading should be taken up in a most relaxed way. As for pace,  as our pace and intensity or speed exceeds our immediate knowledge and experience, we create exponentially greater mental work and intensify the average stress we bring with us into the classroom.  Students bring with them, very different amounts or layers of mental work or average stress that may cause them to work harder to learn new work and usually with improper pace and intensity.  This is why we must "teach altering or slowing our pace and intensity" when approaching newer mental work such as reading.  Remember, we wish to create long-term readers, not just some immediate goal of reading fluency.

As for vocabulary; we need to not be so concerned with over teaching the words that we lose track of the enjoyment of the reading process.  Many of those words, students have alleady heard from their social vocabulary. Sure we can teach those words, but we need not over do it.  Also, as a note,  Girls have an advantage in two areas for reading.  We have a lower average stress providing us with more mental energy to learn skills such as reading.  We also have received probably three or four times the social interaction and so we have a much larger social vocabulary. Our social vocabulary is extremely important for learning new words in print we have heard before from our social vocabulary.  Boys are raised with much more aggressive treatment (creating higher average stress they bring with them from home) and far less social interaction, support, and social vocabulary from the social/emotional distance from this more aggressive less supportive treatment.  We need to help all students learn the words they need to know, and as they need help, we need to be there to help them.  This can vary by a large degree, dependng on the students' environment and treatment.

As for text comprehension,  this is the finishing touch of reading skills.  This must come in tme.  We can build this sooner, but should never apply the same yard stick to all the students, for they come with very different skills, vocabulary, stress, and pace of reading experience.  We want to teach the art of visualizing.  This is essential for reading comprehension.  We also want to teach reflection or pausing, reaching back in the text to compare when student loses the picture.  We want to encourage reflection and ease of pace to foster enjoyment.  We should test only when we can be sure all the students have had suffiencient time to reflect on and picture to comprehend the material.  Only then should we check for comprehension.  I feel it is a grave error to have a student read material either to oneself or worse, aloud and then ask for comprehension.  I feel we all have very experience and reflection times.  Also, when reading aloud this takes up more mental energy than reading to one's self and greatly cuts down on comprehension at that time. We want to create long-term readers who enjoy the reading process, then we hope they will have from our carefully modeled reading environment, a model they can use to enjoy the process "independently".

Motivation; sure, students enjoy very different books and love pictures.  But we want to teach things that make reading more worthwhile.  "Motivation" for reading equals mental reward received for mental work expended.  We want to help students through their parents and teachers have more ease of learning and this includes lower average stress or lower layers of mental frictions they carry with them  to school and in the school itself. The lower the better and more mental energy they have to perform.  As this entails newer mental work for some, fatigue is a factor, so time on task needs to be shorter with more breaks and then back on task with the same "ease of instruction to build enjoyment of reading.  We also must teach this ver important tool that as our pace and intensity in approaching a newer material exceeds our immediate knowledge and experience, we intensify our average stress to a much higher level, making it harder to learn  the new material.  We wish to create long-term readers and learners So this skill needs to be taught to all students when aproaching newer mental work.  As they gain the necessary mental frames, their pace and intensity will begin to increase naturally with equal enjoyment, or longer term reading and learning.  http://learningtheory.homestead.com/Theory.html 

Children may use different styless due to environmental modeling and practice, but this not some genetic feature.  We need to help all students learn in all the modes, not just some mode they appear to be experienced in.  

Very often children need

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That was interesting. There

That was interesting. There are different aspects we can see on how kids leard to read. Most of the time, they look first on the colors and pictures. Then, it was a process.

The emphasis of school

The emphasis of school promoters on character formation the determining of values the inculcation of following and social attitudes and proper behavior many parents supported schooling because they wanted their children to study to read write and do mathematics N10-005 Exam Questions

Reading, enjoyment of

Reading, enjoyment of reading, and development of complex reading and comprehension over time requires these things.

1.  Reading independently and reading for enjoyment, especially for younger students, requires using the phonics in a very practical way and taught in a very slow, clear, method so students and then learn to approach new words in print they already know from their much larger, social vocabulary.  This is the key to independent reading.  Ask for reading approach for this method.

2. Since reading is an abstract skill requiring more mental energy,  this requires Lower average stress or lower layers of mental frictions (see learning theory).  This is necessary to decode, visualize, organize, and link information in written material without over taxing the reader.  Note the reader must also enjoy the process.

3.  Part of this enjoyment of reading requires the proper dynamics of reading.  We want to encourage younger students "not to read for speed" but for enjoyment.  We want to encourage students to slow down for newer mental work, especially when reading.  We want knowledge and confidence to create the speed of their reading.

4.  Along with this process of correct teaching, we need to create more visualization of  material and "allow time to reflect on written material.  If we wish to create intrinsic reward and yes, along with this more self involvement in learning, namely homework, then we need to begin teaching our students more correctly, so they will have more desire to learn for years to come, not just for this semester or year.

The education system in

The education system in america has come under fire time and again for failing to produce results in its students in math and science, and for being extremely expensive in the collegial years. Perhaps it is information like this, the Facts on Education, that would help educators find what they might have been missing.



Bruce,thank you for being open.

If you google NICHDresearch study 25 years were consolidated by Bonnie Grossen,U of Oregon.

Also-   www.childrenofthecode




Thank you, Jo-Anne.  That

Thank you, Jo-Anne.  That helps me to understand your concern.

I would like to read Dr. Lyon's article which you recommended but I can't seem to find it on the Reading Rockets web site.  Could you perhaps provide the direct URL link?

I couldn`t disagree more with

I couldn`t disagree more with Ben Levin-this is the kind of stuff that`s damaging to school boards working with children.The children will be harmed and have been harmed with this wishy washy approach.


Please read Dr.Reid Lyon`s article on "How CHildren Learn To Read" on Reading Rockets website-posted and funded by U.S. Dept of Education.

Reid Lyon lead the charge and grants on a research study at the NICHD that was funded with half a billion dollars and involved the collaboration of Harvard,Yale,Haskins Labs,OISE-Keith Stanovich,Florida Centre for Reading Research,Rutgers-It asked the question"How do Children Learn to Read?"

We know how now!

Joanne, It's good to see you


It's good to see you here! I have spent the past couple of days digging deeper into the one-page brief presented by Ben Levin and his team, and I found it the resources referenced to be informative and rich with the type of confidently presented research for which I know you have a great deal of respect.

In particular, I found the report, Foundations for Literacy, by the CLLRN to be very helpful. I know that you spoke to this group back in 2009 as part of the consultations around the development of an early learning strategy, and so it is likely that some of your presentation is captured in the Foundations for Literacy toolkit.

In reading through the toolkit, I found a great deal of useful information, including charts of the 43 phonemes (I've spent the past few hours trying to find the missing 44th phoneme!), morpheme layers, and even a rather interesting articulation chart. The report begins by dispelling no less than 8 myths about learning to read. It underlines the importance of explicit instruction for most children learning to read, and includes many of the research references about which you, yourself, have spoken on many occasions. A look at the bibliography would reveal references to Keith and Paul Stanovich's work, and the work of Dr. Reid-Lyon. I found this research to be written with passion, clarity and confidence.

My question is this: What is the part of the Levin presentation that you find to be wishy-washy and, worse than that, harmful to our children? I think that we need to be clear on this if the conversation is going to move forward in jurisdictions across Canada.

Admittedly, the key may be in the implementation. I know, in Ontario, the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat has been working diligently with school districts to ensure that what we know works in literacy education is part of the practice of all teachers in the province. I know that this can be challenging work, sometimes meeting with resistance as teachers are challenged to take a good look at their own practice.

As Reid-Lyons indicates in the article that you referenced, learning to read is complex, and involves many dimensions beyond "decoding". 

I would love to know more about the differences between your thinking around this and the material presented in Levin's work, and the research to which he refers.

This is a very important conversation. I would love to hear from other parents and educators on this. 

Absolutely Stephen,I am aware

Absolutely Stephen,I am aware that this is a crucial discussion.

Yes,teaching children to read is complex but the top part which we miss doing in our classrooms because of fuzzy guidelines is the importance of the non mentionable ,phonics.

Phonemic awareness has to be anchored to the grapheme to be meaningful-we now know that the speech sound is the key starting point in teaching Reading and Spelling,they reinforce each other-so as I have the child hear the sounds in the word p/ar/t,I need to show him after he segments them orally with magnets or tiles what those parts look like-that is the stickler point in the document that is the one pager.

Once I show him, then I must ask him to read part-blend,segment one sound off or peel,to read tart and put and s in front to read start,as an example of course-that is called synthetic phonics-in and out,blend ,segment,blend.If that is missing,as it was in the one pager-then we stay in guessing and memory,we do not teach explicitly and synthetically.After this, the research has shown,as in the National Reading panel,that a whole list of /ar/ words should be read to practice fluency and automaticity after orthographic instruction .We must teach systematically and explicitly,for example after /ar/we can teach /or/./Or/has several grapheme representations-Then,we put the children into decodable text for 3 -4 months and after each phoneme we continue the same process and they fly like birds to reading comprehension due to fluency.

Is Reading comprehension automatic,of course not-we need background knowledge,vocabulary discussion and semantic webbing and retelling.

But first,we need the child to read and stop guessing.

Reading comprehension and vocabulary instruction was well managed by the one pager-

The fluency junction cannot be handled by modeling unless the child is truly reading and we need to teach both together-reading and spelling taught with speech sounds supports each other.

We have greatly underestimated what spelling and writing can do for the brain.

It`s all so easy if we honoured the research and taught the teachers-instead we fight and continue to propel the discredited myth that learning to read is automatic like learning to speak-sure if we want to teach to 30-40% of the classroom.It`s like learning music,one scale builds on the other and then we make beautiful music.I have never known of a pianist protege that plays by ear that has been harmed by the knowledge of music instruction.

The methods of today are extremely harmful to ESL children,boys ,First Nations children and LD children.

I will go over the document that was well intentioned today and show you on each page that is a bit fuzzy and missed the mark what needed to be changed.Yes,it was a positive and honourable step.

My blood boiled at the one pager,I agree totally that some of the referred documents were good science.


Joanne, I agree that it's


I agree that it's essential to honour the research!

"It`s like learning music,one scale builds on the other and then we make beautiful music.I have never known of a pianist protege that plays by ear that has been harmed by the knowledge of music instruction."

An interesting example. I know many children who were subject to hours of theory prematurely and, consequently, are no longer interested in playing the piano.

Looking forward to your further comments on the research.

Page 24 on top great- Page

Page 24 on top great-

Page 27-phonemes are mainly wrong-

Page 28-Useless and confusing

Page 29-superfluous,confusing

SEDL Chart-phenomenal

Page 39-2 A-Line one has errors

Page 42-not good-

43-44-45-confusing,lacks practicality and hums around the sweet spot without being precise for the purpose of successful instruction-

If I were the teacher I would be nauseous and overwhelmed right about now.

There are documents that we quoted that are far more attainable for the teachers-and wouldn`t it be nice if the Universities helped the teachers learn all this.

Fair enough. But, I guess my

Fair enough. But, I guess my main question is whether you believe that the research contained in the document is the research that needs to be honoured. Is there something missing or, better, is there something that stands in opposition to what you believe about the way children learn to read.

It is my understanding that this document was the result of national consultations with a large number of presenters, representing a wide variety of perspectives. I know from experience how difficult it is to create a final piece with which everyone is thrilled!

I wonder how others feel...




Best one that really helps teachers-

Opinion does not matter-research does-we can`t teach children to read and spell based on art!

I am unclear Jo-Anne.  With

I am unclear Jo-Anne.  With what do you disagree?

Phonemic awareness-there are

Phonemic awareness-there are 44 speech sounds-and get has 3/g/e/t/-the children need to learn through their teachers that the graphemes are crucial as step 2-the picture of sounds also known as phonics-through connecting the speech sound to the picture it makes-then the children learn to blend the sounds-known as synthetic phonics-blend the 3 phonemes and segment them-the in and out is known as synthetic and once the articulation and reading is done of taught orthographic concepts then and only then can fluency & automaticity be attained through repeated readings-can`t be attained by modeling-children need to be truly reading to achieve fluency-the road to comprehension.

Teaching children to read is complex and I objected because many of the crucial steps were not listed-also phonemic awareness is the knowledge of the internal linguistic structure of words-eg ,storm has 4 phonemes,share has 2-sh and are-are can be graphemically represented as are,air and ear-

Teachers need training in all of this to be successful in their classrooms and I know for a fact,they want nothing more.



Perhaps I am misinterpreting

Perhaps I am misinterpreting something, but the first resource listed (Foundations for Literacy: An Evidence Based Toolkit) seems to agree with you and provides the research evidence for the importance of phonemic awareness, knowledge of the alphabetic principle and letter knowledge as foundations for reading.  Is there something in this resource that is contrary to your understanding?

I am familiar with the

I am familiar with the document-I can`t tell you how much it misses the mark to help teachers but it does mention what you refer to-

I object to the document one pager listed here-After Phonemic Awareness they move to Fluency building-without the brain being taught to read and the grapheme coming into the equation,also referred to as phonic and the synthetic,explicit and systematic factors coming into play-the instruction recommended misses crucial steps to student success.