Exploring the science of reading for new learners one step at a time.

Reading is one of the most valuable skills in the world, which is why it is one of the first core skills that we teach children in school. Having the ability to read—and read well—allows children to learn, explore the world around them, and entertain themselves too. 

This particular skill is so common that most adults don’t even remember learning to read. For many of us, it seems as if the skill has always been there. Of course, when it comes to teaching or raising children, we have to revisit the process. In this article, we will discuss the science behind teaching children how to read. 

Teaching Children How to Read: The Basics

Learning to speak is a natural process for children, but learning to read is not. Reading needs to be taught explicitly. Children need to learn the different sounds in spoken language and be able to connect these sounds to written letters and make meaning out of print.   

Children also need background and vocabulary knowledge so that they comprehend what they are reading. Eventually, children need to recognize words automatically and read text fluently while at the same time attending to grammar, sentence structure, and punctuation. Decades of research has shown that reading does not come naturally. The human brain is not wired to read. 

The reading aspect of learning a language helps to solidify existing language skills for children. Even basic reading skills can make a noticeable difference in how children interact with the world around them. Most children learn to read by the age of seven. With practice, they will gain the ability to explore the language and teach themselves new words. Let’s break down how learning to read works in steps.

 Phonological Awareness: Exploring Sound Structure

When children learn to read, they begin with phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is one of the core reading skills centered around the structure of sound in relation to words. As adults, we do not generally think about the sounds of words anymore, but learning those sounds and how they come together are very helpful when learning to read.

Most modern approaches to teaching reading to children prioritize phonological awareness as an early step. This is because a child’s level of phonological awareness often directly translates to how well they can read later. It is considered an important skill to support reading education.

There are three main categories of phonological awareness:

  • Rhyming
  • Syllables
  • Phonemic Awareness   

Children learn rhyming skills through listening and reading stories with an instructor.  For example, while reading a story, the instructor might say, “I hear rhyming words…dog and bog rhyme!” Some other examples:

“Tell me all the words you know that rhyme with the word hat.” 

“Say the word hat. Say the word hat again, but change the /h/ to /b/.” (bat)

“Listen to these words – mop, plop, flop, tag.  Which of these does not rhyme?”

Children learn to break up words into syllables or chunks through explicit instruction. One activity that helps a child pull apart the syllables in a word is to count them. This can be done by clapping each syllable. The instructor can start by counting (actually clapping) the number of syllables in a child’s own name. Ja-son. (clap, clap).  Jon-a-than. (clap, clap, clap). The child can also clap out the days of the week Sun-day, the months of the year, Sep-tem-ber, and fun words like cu-cum-ber  or Cin-der-el-la.  

 Phonemic Awareness: Making Sense of Words

Phonemic awareness is a type of awareness that most parents and teachers recognize in practice, even if they don’t know it by name. With this type of awareness, children learn how to break words out into sounds and syllables, then how to use those sounds and syllables. Most of us know this term by three simple words: sound it out. 

The word bat has three sounds – /b/, /a/, /t/.

The word ship has three sounds – /sh/, /i/, /p/

The word goat has three sounds – /g/, /ō/, /t//.

The word go has two sounds – /g/, /ō/

Sounding out words is one of the basic reading steps that help children to translate letters into actual words. Phonemic awareness helps children to get their start with reading. Over time, children can learn to sound out new words almost immediately rather than taking slow approaches. They can also recognize similar sounds, learn how to rhyme, and combine sounds to form new words.

As children learn to sound out words, they can begin decoding. Decoding is the ability to understand how a word sounds, then pronounce the words out loud. It is the step that allows children to see a word, understand it, then repeat it out loud. This is achieved by blending together words and sounds to create a single word.

When learning phonemic awareness and decoding, children begin by matching the very first sounds in words and then the final sounds. “What is the first sound you hear in the word mop?  What is the last sound you hear in the word mop?” Some other examples of identifying and practicing rhymes:

“Say the word pat. Clap for each sound you hear in the word pat.”

“What word am I trying to say? /t/  (pause) /en/  (ten)

“Say the word bit without the /b/.” (it)

Introduction to Letters

Before a child can learn how to read words, they must start their reading education by learning the letters and sounds. Having a clear understanding of the alphabet is important for helping children to learn how to piece words together. It also plays an important role in pronunciation. Learners start with letters as an introductory step.  

Phonics is a method of teaching students how to connect the graphemes (letters) with the phonemes (sounds) and how to use this letter/sound relationship to read and spell words. Phonics is a key component to reading because decoding is the foundation upon which all reading instruction is built upon. 

Lessons are built on previously taught information, from simple to complex, with clear, concise student objectives that are driven by ongoing assessment:

  • Consonant and short vowel sounds
  • Digraphs and blends
  • Long vowels and other vowel patterns
  • Syllable patterns 
  • Affixes

The most effective phonics instruction is based on the science of reading, meaning it is systematic, sequential, cumulative, and explicit. Each individual skill is taught in isolation beginning with the most basic levels of phonics and developing into the most advanced spelling rules and morphological concepts in a step-by-step process.  The explicit instruction in phonics is carefully built around a scope and sequence. This scope and sequence dictates the order in which each concept or skill is taught.  

Introduction to Words

When children learn to read, it often starts with oral communication. Talking to children can help them to learn new words. By age five, most children know around 10,000 words. The more words they know, the more prepared they will be to learn them in written form. 

Working with children on common words and phrases, as well as the correct ways to put them together, can help guide them and make it easier to recognize these concepts in written formats. Children who read for 20 minutes or more a day can be exposed to up to 2 million words each year!  


Teaching children to read requires regular practice and encouragement. The more practice that children receive, the more likely they are to master these key concepts. With time, a little regular practice can turn into a lifelong reading habit. 

When practicing, patience is essential. Every child learns to read at their own pace and in their own time. In many cases, children who struggle to learn how to read are the same ones who bury their heads in books for fun later. One reading habits study found that among children who struggle with reading, the difference between those who caught up and those who continued to struggle was a difference of six minutes of reading a day.

To support learning and help children to develop strong reading skills, parents and teachers should focus on creating a positive environment for practice. For many children, learning to read is frustrating before it is rewarding. Creating a patient, understanding, and positive environment helps children to feel supported while they figure everything out.

Vocabulary Expansion

Reading starts with small words and general phrases, but it is a skill that builds with time. Once a child starts to master core reading concepts, it is time to help expand upon those skills. One excellent way to start is by supporting a healthy vocabulary. Teaching children interesting and exciting words can keep them engaged and help them to practice. 

While the instructor and student are reading aloud, they can focus on finding, learning, and reviewing unknown words. This not only helps the child comprehend the text they are reading, but also leads to a greater understanding of the world itself. Here’s how this strategy works: 

  1. Pause reading and tell the child the word.
  2. Talk about the word, giving as much background as possible – a science or history lesson when appropriate.
  3. Demonstrate how to use the word in a sentence.
  4. Discuss multiple meanings of the word with the child.
  5. Practice visualization. For example, to teach the word “avid,” ask the student to visualize a person that they might know who is an avid reader or avid bowler and then trace the word avid while they imagine the person.
  6. Together with the student, compose a simple definition and have the student write it on the whiteboard.

Reading Comprehension

Recognizing words and knowing how they sound is important, but it is only the first step. As children start to string words together into sentences and gain the ability to quickly identify key phrases, it is important to start working on reading comprehension too. Challenging children with comprehension questions can help to solidify the process and give them a valuable skill that is essential for school and most careers.

Comprehension Questions Include:

  • What happened in this story?
  • How does the character feel about [X]? 
  • What is the character trying to do?
  • Who did we meet in this story?

Building Strong Habits

Reading is a valuable skill that is as important for success as it is for fun. Encouraging strong reading habits can help your child to perform better academically and empower them to learn critical thinking skills too. With the right approach, parents and teachers can help children to build strong reading habits now and in the future.

Ways to Support Strong Reading Habits:

  • Allow children to choose what stories they read
  • Work with them on books that are a little above their skill level
  • Offer them reading materials on topics they are interested in
  • Take them to libraries or explore digital libraries
  • Give encouragement at every stage

The Takeaway

Young readers have so much to learn about the world, and reading helps them to do it. Giving children the skills to read stories, understand information, and enjoy doing it can build lifelong reading habits. 

Thank you so much for reading this today! If you enjoyed this article on how children learn to read, you might also enjoy reading my previous articles:

Harnessing the Power of Phonemic Awareness, Phonological Awareness & Phonics

The Science of Reading: What All Teachers Should Know


To learn more about effective reading education, visit us at Pride Reading Program today! This Orton-GIllingham, structured literacy curriculum is aligned with the science of reading, and used by teachers and parents, worldwide with great success!

The PRIDE Reading Program

How Children Learn to Read: A Guide for Parents and Teachers

Karina Richland, M.A., is the author and curriculum developer of the PRIDE Reading Program, an Orton-Gillingham, structured literacy curriculum aligned with the science of reading. This homeschool and classroom curriculum uses engaging, multi-sensory methods to teach reading, writing, spelling, and comprehension. Karina has an extensive background in working with students of all ages and various learning modalities. She has spent many years researching learning differences and differentiated teaching practices.  You can reach her by email at info@pridereadingprogram.com or visit the website at www.pridereadingprogram.com


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