Literacy Myth #1 - Students Learn to Read Naturally

There is a widespread myth in our culture that children learn to read the same way they learn to speak: naturally. However, this is simply not true. One look at the literacy statistics reveals the fallacy. Two-thirds of U.S. students read below grade level and one-third of fourth graders are functionally illiterate. It is a minority of students who learn to read "naturally," not a majority.

Nevertheless, the primary solution proposed to the literacy crisis is to ask students to read more. Most educators believe that students need more practice reading in order to become better readers. However, this begs the question: "How does a student who doesn't know how to read, learn to read by reading?"

The myth that learning to read is acquired naturally by being surrounded by print is also prevalent in parenting magazines, library fliers, and even on the back of cereal boxes. The most common advice for parents is to read to children more, make it fun, and let kids see you reading. Read signs, read books, read the cereal box, do it together, create a desire, and somehow the child will magically begin to read.

In addition, school districts across our nation are trying to solve the literacy crisis by adopting programs that require students to read an hour or more per day independently, without answering students' real questions about why words are read and spelled in a particular manner. With a code as complex as English it is no wonder students are confused, and it is no wonder that students who struggle to understand the code do not want to read.

Brain research also confirms that reading is not a natural process. Though we are born with pathways for learning oral language, there are no such pathways for learning to read. Rather, literacy is a complex process in the brain that requires students to connect speech with visual cues, and this is best learned through systematic instruction.

Learning to read, especially in English, requires explicit instruction in how words are written. After we answer students' questions about words and unlock the code, then reading practice will result in readers that are more fluent, have larger vocabularies, and comprehend with ease.

To learn more about the science of reading, see Proust and the Squid by Dr. Maryann Wolfe.