How Children Learn to Read
Updated: Jul 20, 2021
How do we learn to read? In order to empathize with a young child’s perspective, let us attempt to read the following simple sentence, written in Greek. (If you already read Greek, well done.)
Βλέπω τη γάτα.
Unfortunately for us English speakers, the letters of the Greek alphabet do not necessarily correspond to their counterparts in English. For example, “B” actually makes the sounds we English readers associate with “V”. Using the guide below, sound out the words before scrolling down:
Β, β = “v”
γ= soft gargle gh
Did you decipher “Vlépo ti gáta,” which translates to “I see the cat”?
How We Learn to Read
This exercise illuminates how children first learn to read. As a child would, you approached the words through sounding them out, which we call the phonological stage. Much like you went letter by letter (γ-ά-τ-α→ γάτα), children must say each sound before blending (c-a-t→ cat).
However, imagine that you encounter the word “γάτα” (cat) on a number of occasions. Have you seen a black γάτα? He is a friendly γάτα. The γάτα likes to climb trees. Do you have a γάτα? Did you need to sound out the word γάτα every time you encountered it, or did you eventually integrate the entire word into your memory? Congratulations! You graduated to the orthographic stage.
Sounding out and then regularly recognizing a word becomes easier if it already exists in your lexicon. Once I connected “γάτα” to “cat,” I registered the word with ease, which emphasized the importance of possessing a large and rich vocabulary when emerging into reading.
Thankfully, experienced readers generally do not sound out every word, unless they find a new word or read a lot of fantasy novels with intricate names. (“Daenerys Targaryen,” “Khal Drogo,” “Melisandre,” “Frodo,” “Gollum,” etc.) Still, undergirding your impressive ability to read at first sight is the foundational skill of sounding out words phonetically. How else could you read the following nonsensical words?
I hope that this exercise enabled you to empathize with young children barraged with strange symbols who work so hard in order to read a simple sentence. And remember: you already know so much more about reading than your child does. You have an existing compendium of sounds, and you know how to blend them.
While I attempted to evoke a feeling of empathy for children learning to read, this activity only scratched the surface. I momentarily ignored the fact that many letters change sounds when combined. For instance, “γ” indicates “y” or “yah” when it comes before e, u, i; otherwise it denotes a soft, gargled “gh”. When the letter σ stands alone, it makes the sound “s,” but if it occurs before a consonant (except λ), it becomes “z”. Accounting for all of these exceptions feels overwhelming, does it not? Now, consider that English contains significantly more exceptions to its preliminary phonetic rules than Modern Greek. We certainly ask a lot of our young readers!
Children learn to read by first sounding out words (phonological stage) before cataloguing entire words (orthographic stage). Experienced readers usually know words on sight and rarely sound out words phonetically. Have patience with your young children; reading requires many skills to coalesce. While it may seem simple to us, for them it is anything but.