Engagement, Promising Practices, Teaching

How Children Learn to Read

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The foundation of language and literacy skills is laid during early childhood. Early learning is important to lifelong development. Researchers have identified some of the most important factors that help children learn to read. While there are some definite skills children need to develop, it is also vital that children read things they enjoy, and enjoy what they read.

  • Phonemic Awareness: helps the child to hear, identify and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) into words (e.g. /g/ = get and /u/ =too). Children need to know these skills.
  • Fluency Instruction: Reading accurately and quickly can be assisted by modeling fluency (reading aloud to children), providing books at the child’s level, repeated oral reading, increasing practice through audiotapes, tutors and peer guidance.
  • Vocabulary: Ways to teach vocabulary include teaching specific words before reading, providing activities involving those words (mental images/acting out definitions), repeating vocabulary in different contexts, and learning high frequency words
  • Text Comprehension: Strategies to help children understand what they are reading include: reading comprehension questions, understanding the story structure (e.g. plot, setting), summarizing, reflecting on their prior knowledge to make connections and using graphic organizers (e.g. bubble charts) to organize thinking.
  • Motivation: Children are motivated to read if they find the text interesting and have background knowledge on the topic. Young children are often drawn to illustrations, graphics and display features. Praise and recognition may also be motivating.

Research suggests that children learn to read in different ways. There is recent evidence that computer technology is an effective tool in teaching reading for children.


CEA and the Ontario Institute in Studies in Education (OISE) have teamed up to provide you with relevant and timely information based on current empirical educational research. The primary goal of this project is to get relevant and needed research into the hands of parents and other interested people. They are written in plain language on topics of interest to parents, such as homework and class size.

Additional Resources For Parents

Foundations for Literacy: An Evidence Based Toolkit for the Effective Reading and Writing Teachereyeonkids.ca/

  • Although this was written for teachers, there are many useful strategies that may easily be implemented at home.

Ministry of Education, Government of Ontario: The Government of Ontario provides tips for parents on helping children learn to read. http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/abc123/eng/index.html

Peel District School Board, Literacy and Numeracy Tip Sheets: This site provides 16 tip sheets on helping children improve their literacy skills. http://www.peel.edu.on.ca/parents/tips/num-index.htm

Reading and Language: Building Literacy Skills Everyday:

This website provides practical tips on how parents can support literacy skills through daily activities (i.e. going to the doctor’s office or grocery shopping) http://www.pbs.org/parents/readinglanguage/quicktips/main.html

The Government of Alberta: This website provides information for parents and teachers on literacy the range of essential literacy skills and strategies. This site is available in French as well.


Toronto District School Board, Parenting and Family Literacy Centres: This website provides free school based programs to support children’s early literacy through play. There are translations available on the program’s key features in 16 languages. http://www.tdsb.on.ca/_site/ViewItem.asp?siteid=201&menuid=1001&pageid=732

TVO Website for Parents: Parents will find videos and related links about how children learn to read on this website.


Quebec English Literacy Alliance: A list of literacy resources can be found on this website for children and families.


Research References Informing this Issue

Armbruster, B. B., Lehr, F., Osborn, J., Adler, R., & Noonis, L., (2001) The research building blocks for teaching children to read: Put reading first. Retrieved September 28, 2010, from National Reading Panel Web site: http://www.nifl.gov/

Early Years Education Ontario Network. (2010). Early Literacy. In Eye on Early Years Education and Ontario Network. Retrieved Oct. 15, 2010, from http://eyeonkids.ca/early-literacy

McCardle, P., & Chhabra, V. (Eds.). (2004). The voice of evidence in reading research. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Pelletier, J., Reeve R., Halewood, C., (2006). Young children’s knowledge building and literacy development through knowledge forum. Early Education and Development, 17(3), 323-346.

  • Key finding is that “Children who participated in the online Knowledge Forum learning environment made greater gains in early reading over the course of the year.” (p. 341)

Torgesen, K. Joseph., Wagner, K. R., Rashotte, A. C., Herron, & J., Lindamood, P. (2010). Computer-assisted instruction to prevent early reading difficulties in students at risk for dyslexia: Outcomes from two instructional approaches. Annals of Dyslexia, 60(4) 40-56

  • In this study, students who received interventions through two computer programs showed stronger outcomes in phonological awareness, rapid naming, phonemic decoding, word reading accuracy/fluency, spelling, and reading comprehension at the end of first grade.

Meet the Expert(s)

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education