Young boy reading

How children learn to read

I have some mixed feelings about this research, so I thought it would be a great idea to share it with you and get your sage insights on it. Start with this summary in the New Yorker by Maria Konnikova. I read her work all the time – she is a truly excellent psychology writer. And if you want the original study from Psychological Science by Fumiko Hoeft at UCSF, you can get it here if you have access to the journal.

Why is it easy for some people to learn to read, and difficult for others? It’s a tough question with a long history. We know that it’s not just about raw intelligence, nor is it wholly about repetition and dogged persistence.

Maria’s article summarizes a series of research studies on how children learn to read but focuses on the newest work from Dr. Hoeft. The main result of the study is that when controlling for genetic risk, environmental factors, pre-K language ability, and over-all cognitive capacity, the only thing that predicted how well five- and six-year olds would learn to read over the next three years was growth in the white matter of the left temperoparietal cortex. White matter is what makes up the connections between neurons. The left TPC is where we link sounds to the respective letters. So learning to read between kindergarten and 3rd grade involved growing the ability to link sounds and letters.

Key findings:

  • This three year period is critical for learning to read. Don’t waste them.
  • Children who start kindergarten with less white matter or less reading ability or less general intelligence still developed their learning ability. So many of the disadvantages that lower socio-economic status children have can be overcome with good K-3 reading pedagogy.
  • The article also cites Dr. Hoeft’s previous study on dyslexic children which found that children can develop better executive control abilities to overcome their dyslexia and develop their reading skills as well.

This is great news, right? But here is my question. They controlled for everything that had previously been linked to reading difficulties: genetics, cognitive ability, environment, etc. That is not the same as showing they don’t matter. If you start out five levels behind because of these other factors, you still learn just as much during the 3 years from K-3. But that leaves you still five levels behind, just from a higher baseline. Doesn’t it? Doesn’t this mean that we still need to focus on overcoming the disadvantages before kindergarten so that disadvantaged children can start at the same level when they enter school and thereby end at the same level after third grade?

And what about the findings with dyslexic children? If they are using executive control to read, that requires cognitive effort that might be needed to understand the material they are reading. Perhaps not Dick and Jane, but certainly in 3rd grade history lessons. If they are using it just to read, they are going to have a much harder time with the understanding piece.

Your Turn

Simple question for you today. Am I missing something here? It would be great if Dr. Hoeft would weigh in. But everyone’s thoughts are welcome as always.

Image credit: White77

3 thoughts on “How children learn to read”

  1. As the parent of a possible “stealth dyslexic”, I concur with Dr. Hoeft’s findings on an anecdotal level. My son scored high on executive functioning, talked early, strong comprehension, yet he had difficulty reading. Music lessons helped him the most, drums and piano. My son reports that it was like a curtain being lifted.

  2. Thanks Jo. Key question though. While overcoming his dyslexia using executive function, does he then have less executive function to use for the external and germane parts of the activity? You can only tell if this is happening if there are high workload parts of the activity beyond just the reading. Or is he still too young to tell?

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