Learning to read

In most countries, formal reading instruction begins when children enter school. However, literacy development starts to emerge long before then. Literacy skills build on a foundation of spoken language and it is assumed that when children start school, their spoken language is sufficient to support learning to read.

The acquisition of alphabetic knowledge and ability with letter-sound relationships are of pivotal importance to beginning reading. The beginning reader has to discover how printed words relate to spoken words, because reading involves translating printed symbols into pronunciations. This process requires mapping across modalities from vision (written forms of letters) to audition (spoken sounds). When a child sees and hears spellings paired with the pronunciation of a word, they need to pay attention to how at least some of the letters symbolise phonetic units detected in the pronunciation. Knowing letter names and shapes helps children to begin processing graphic cues in printed words and phonetic associations between word spellings and pronunciations. Therefore, the aim of reading instruction is to help the learner ‘crack’ this code to fully utilise connections between the letters and sounds they encounter in words (1).

Children need to become aware that words can be broken down into constituent parts (such as syllables), and that in turn, syllables can be segmented into phonemes. The acquisition of ‘phoneme awareness’ is a critical step in the development of decoding skill to enable the identification of syllables and words, particularly where they are unfamiliar.

However, in every classroom in every country we can recognise children who struggle to master reading skills. Some of these children gradually overcome their initial difficulty and acquire basic reading skills by practicing reading. But many struggling readers continue to encounter reading difficulties throughout their school years, and some continue to struggle with reading in adulthood (2,3).

The term ‘reading difficulties’ is usually employed in reference to a broad group of different types of reading problems, including accurate and fluent decoding and reading comprehension. Children who have severe problems with single-word reading (decoding) and/or reading fluency of text are most often diagnosed with dyslexia or reading disability (3).


  1. Castles, A., Rastle, K., & Nation, K. (2018). Ending the reading wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19, 5–51.
  2. Eklund, K., Torppa, M., Sulkunen, S., Niemi, P., & Ahonen, T. (2018). Early cognitive predictors of PISA reading in children with and without family risk for dyslexia. Learning and Individual Differences, 64 (2018), 94-103.
  3. Elliot, J.G. & Grigorenko, E.L. (2014). The Dyslexia Debate. Cambridge University press.

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