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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Barr (M.A. M.Ed)

The How and When of Learning to Read...

I hate talking about phonics! As an early childhood educator I feel I have always been constantly encouraged, asked, and manipulated to start explicitly teaching phonics to my students as if it was the most important thing in the world to learn at three, four and five aka it looks good to parents. I understand that in the long run learning to read is important and over my career I have been told to follow different approaches, curriculums or styles to teach children to read and write, many of which I followed blindly assuming it was the best way. With so many different programs and methods what is the right way?

How should children be taught to read? Some people like to simply divide it into two groups, the progressive vs. the traditionalist approaches. One side often being labelled as the advocates of the whole language approach against the side of systematic phonics instruction. What I often fail to see from both sides is putting the objectives of their schools or classrooms and the research/evidence in context. That is what this article is trying to achieve. I am also coming at this from the point of view of an early childhood educator who believes in an emergent curriculum philosophy rather than a pre-planned curriculum and as such think the question of 'how should children learn to read?' must always be followed by the question of 'when should reading and writing instruction begin?'

Over the Christmas holiday Miki and I led a day long set of workshops on four different topics related to inquiry and English language learning in Chinese bilingual kindergartens.

One of the workshops was on 'How Children Learn to Read: Whole Language vs Phonics'. We included this workshop due to amount of early years programs that are trying teach reading and writing but are doing it without enough research or thought on the how and when to do it. There are major issues with the quality of reading and writing instruction in private kindergartens in China and I assume over the 'English teaching' world. If I can give an oversimplified reason for this it would be, teachers don't know enough about the science of leaning to read and family pressures have led to kindergartens introducing a 'slow drip' approach to appease these concerns. In the picture above I am explaining the problem with the 'slow drip' approach of teaching three year olds the letters, four year olds letter sounds and then five year olds how to blend and segment those sounds following a letter per week formula. Essentially you spend three years focusing on learning symbols (letters) out of any real meaningful context in the 'English or Phonics' class without the benefit of learning the skills to use them in any real or useful way. It's like being taught how to put on your shoes one year then the next year how to tie shoe laces but only being given shoes you can start tying yourself in the third year.

The how is mostly clear. Research has shown that the most effective method is the synthetic phonics approach. It begins with systematically teaching phonics, beginning with explicit instruction of the 42-44 phonemes (sounds) in the English language and the different grapheme combinations (letters) that make these sounds. Why 42-44? because experts can't agree on how many as different countries and dialects pronounce sounds differently but most agree between 42 and 44. Synthetic phonics isn't the only phonics method though. There is also analytic phonics which focuses on learning or memorizing words then deconstructing them. This can lead to guess work and the illusion of reading. Then there is analogy phonics which is very similar to analytic just with a greater focus on learning similar word to identify sounds.Teachers might call these 'word families'. Finally there is embedded phonics often associated with the whole language approach that is now considered a flawed method in the context of the current education system or structure. Embedded phonics can be summed up as teaching sounds and words in context. For example, a project on dinosaurs could lead to learning the 'd' sound and so on. These are oversimplified summaries of the different approaches but if you want some more info click the link. There are also more variations to be found if you search our trusted friend google.

Even though synthetic phonics is considered the most effective it isn't perfect and the problem with it is learning can lack context which means children can often learn how to read but not develop that all important desire or need to read. Much of the research supporting this method shows greater reading scores from tests but doesn't dig deeper into children's interest in reading during or after learning through synthetic phonics, which seems to me to be a rather important question to ask. It's rather like the issue with healthy eating. I bet most children can pass a test on which foods and drinks are healthy or unhealthy but how many children will actually pick the apple over the pack of crisps (chips for the American readers)? or the bottle of water over the can of coke? There has to be a consideration not just for how to teach reading effectively but how children feel about reading. This issue was addressed in the 2000 National Reading Panel review (USA);

"In implementing systematic phonics instruction, educators must keep the end in mind and

ensure that children understand the purpose of learning letter sounds and that they are able to apply these skills accurately and fluently in their daily reading and writing activities."

We should also understand that how children learn to read is connected to the environment children spend most of their day in. Other approaches might not work in a school setting where children sit at desks and move from subject class to subject class but may be successful in other types of environments or settings. There is plenty of evidence of children learning to read through other methods such as 'self directed' education, home schooling or unschooling environments. What these approaches to education offer is greater autonomy, individualized learning and less focus on timetables and schedules to meet targets such as age defined reading ability. As Peter Gray (2010) says,

"for children in standard schools, it is very important to learn to read on schedule, by the timetable dictated by the school. If you fall behind you will be unable to keep up with the rest of the curriculum and may be labeled as a"failure"".

From my own experience I was labelled as 'slow', 'behind' and even 'possibly dyslexic' because I wasn't reading at the level of my peers at five, six and seven. Yet, by eleven years old English was one of my strongest subjects, I read often and spent large amounts of time writing stories on the second hand computer my uncle built for me. On it many lost gems including a story treatment for Star Wars Episode VII, considerably better than the one we got I dare say. When I think back to what I was doing back then it was playing. At home I spent hours in my room playing with my toys creating stories. As an educator I would say little Josh was engaged in some high level literacy skills but I wasn't ready or interested yet to give that up and move to the world of letters, words and pages. Of course that changed, like it does for most late readers and not on the schools schedule but my own. Eventually the world of creating stories with my toys wasn't enough and I found the magic of books, reading and writing. In the Peter Gray's article I linked to above (a highly recommended read) the research carried out seems to address the question of children's interest in reading for pleasure. It says,

"the message repeated most often in these stories of learning to read is that, because the children were not forced or coaxed into reading against their wills, they have positive attitudes about reading and about learning in general." (Peter Gray, 2010).

Another concern with the how question is 'how long?'. How much time needs to be spent on teaching children phonics? The National Reading Panel (2000) also brought up this concern in their review,

It is this question I struggle with the most when we discuss formal phonics instruction in the early years. In every school where formal reading instruction was a priority it always took over much of the importance of the day as well as adults view of each child. With early childhood education specifically we have seen for years the growing concern over increased academic instruction and decreased time for play. In the USA "researchers found that already in 2006 kindergarten teachers spent as much time on literacy activities as on mathematics, science, social studies, music and art combined." (Bassok, et al. 2014). Yet kindergarten and increasingly Prek is targeted for more formal reading and writing instruction. The National Reading Panel (2000) review even promotes the instruction of phonics in kindergarten,

"The ability to read and spell words was enhanced in kindergartners who-received systematic beginning phonics instruction. First graders who were taught phonics systematically were better able to decode and spell, and they showed significant improvement in their ability to comprehend text."

With these statements the review doesn't really address the long term effects of formal instruction in kindergarten compared to those that start in grade 1. Research is also showing that 'children today read less frequently than any previous generation and enjoy reading less than young people did in the past' (Ferguson, 2020). The NRP review also doesn't mention the amount of time needed each day and what might be lost or replaced by introducing formal reading instruction to children in kindergarten (6 and under). For any school, teacher or parent this is particularly worthy of discussion as there is enough evidence to suggest that formal reading instruction doesn't need to begin in kindergarten. This takes us to the question of when to start such formal academic pursuits.

"We all agree with the proposition that learning to read — and in the processes of doing so, acquiring the disposition to become lifelong readers — is a major educational goal. But just

when this process should be started and with what formality and intensity raises many questions among those concerned with our youngest children" (Carlsson-Paige, Almon & McLaughlin, 2015).

Every time a debate rages on about how children learn to read the two groups I mentioned in the introduction start to offer their views. Team phonics get frustrated because they know their approach is the research backed way versus the "debunked" whole language approach. The whole language people either don't know the research and simply believe it is more effective because it aligns with the natural learning beliefs they follow or alternatively, like me, they don't see the end result or goal of kindergarten to be able to read and write but rather building a relationship of meaning with letters, words and language. I don't believe kindergarten has to be the starting place for formal systematic reading instruction. For me that can be grade 1 and this belief comes from looking at long term research studies,


"there is no solid evidence showing long-term gains for children who are taught to read in kindergarten. In fact, by fourth grade and beyond, these children read at the same level as those who were taught to read in the first grade." (Suggate, 2012.)

"children at the top of their class in kindergarten only have a 40 percent chance of being at

the top of their class at the end of third grade." (Guddemi, 2013.)

“By the age of 11 there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups, but the children who started at 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than those children who had started later.” (Cambridge, 2013)

“In a separate study of reading achievement in 15-year olds across 55 countries, researchers showed that there was no significant association between reading achievement and school entry age.” (Cambridge, 2013)

"A number of long-term studies point to greater gains for students in play-based programs as compared to their peers in academically-oriented preschools and kindergartens in which early reading instruction is generally a key component." (DEY, 2015)


Too often the response to the question of 'when' is frequently "children can learn in Prek and K" or "my child learnt at three!". The problem with these answers is they don't really address the issue of the long term benefits for starting younger. It reminds me of that quote for Dr. Lilian Katz 'there is a difference between what children can do and what children should do’. If there is no greater gains from starting younger then why are we? The obvious exception being for cases like the three year old reader but then many parents won't accept one child being taught how to read if their child isn't under the reasoning of 'they are developmentally ready for it now and your child isn't but that is ok'. The current (school) education model needs to have all children progressing at relatively the same rate but the answer also can't be the reverse. If we don't make it a mandate or expectation that all children learn to read in kindergarten then we also can't make it a rule no children learn to read. We have to respect individual development.

"Dr. Arnold Gesell found that all children go on the same path of development; however, some go faster, some go slower, and all have spurts and set-backs along the way. The obvious example is the age that children learn to walk. Some children learn to walk

as early as nine months, some as late as 15 months. But that is all normal and we all agree that the early walker is not a better walker than the later walker. A similar example is the age that children learn to read. Some children learn to read at age three or four years, others not until seven years or later. That range is quite normal. The most compelling part of the reading research is that by the end of third grade, early readers have no advantage over later readers." (Paige et al, 2015)

If a child in the early years is ready and interested in learning to read then we should support that, using the researched backed method because that is how child development works, but that is easier said than done.

To summarize I agree with the best way to teach reading in a school environment (synthetic phonics) I just don't agree it should start in the early years. We are now starting to come to an answer, at least my answer. If the goal is for my students to be reading and writing by the end of kindergarten then I will implement a synthetic phonics approach. I also want my students to care about reading more than their ability to read at this stage or age. But if there is no pressure, need or requirement for all my students to be meeting early reading and writing targets by the end of kindergarten and grade 1 will be the official beginning of formal reading instruction I can implement what the traditionalists might claim to be something more similar to an embedded or whole language approach. I do this because my aim is to help my students develop a love of stories, words, and meaning that comes from a whole host of experiences we can associate with pre-literacy or pre-phonics skills (maybe I'll write another article to address them further). I want my students to grow up as readers who not only have the tools to read but love using them.

I know the four and five year old me would never survive in a classroom that focused on formal reading instruction. I would be told I don't focus enough, I need more support at home or possibly dyslexic, again! With normal development being so widespread and research suggesting there is no long term advantage why should we make it a requirement children in prek and kindergarten meet reading and writing targets?


Bassok, Daphna and A. Rorem. 2014.Is Kindergarten the New First Grade? The Changing Nature of Kindergarten in the Age of Accountability.EdPolicy-Works Working Paper Series.

Cambridge University. (2013). School Starting Age: The Evidence;

Carlsson-Paige, N., Almon, J. & McLaughlin, G. (2015). Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose. Boston, MA: Defending the Early Years; New York, NY: Alliance for Childhood.

Drew, C., 2022. The 4 Types of Phonics, Explained! (2022). [online] Helpful Professor. Available at: <>

Ferguson, D., 2020. Children are reading less than ever before, research reveals. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <>

Gray, P., 2013. The Reading Wars: Why Natural Learning Fails in Classrooms. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: <>

Guddemi, Marcy. 2013. “Important new findings linking self-regualtion, pretend play and learning in young children.”SEEN, August 21.

National Reading Panel. (April, 2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Paige et el, N., 2015. Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain Much to Lose. [online] Available at: <>

Suggate, Sebastian, P. 2012. “Watering the garden before the rain-storm: The case of early reading.” Edited by Sebastian Suggate and Elaine Reese.Contemporary debates in child development and education.Abingdon, UK: Routledge, Taylor & Francis. pp. 181-190


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