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How Kids Learn To Read: Primer Edition

So you want to know how kids learn to read – with an eye to understanding what research has taught us over the last 20+ years – but you aren’t sure where to start, and you don’t have time to take a long course or read a book.

Or you’re trying to put the pieces together in our national conversation about reading instruction.

Friend, I got you. (Or at least, I’m tryin’.)

I’m sharing a few pieces that provide excellent on-ramps to the discussion about how kids learn to read – and where we need to raise the instructional bar.

For clarity, I’m not attempting here to provide a comprehensive How Kids Learn to Read Syllabus… just a few good starting points.

And then, I need your help finding additional resources!

Start Here: Fabulous Intro-Level Primers

The good news: I recently discovered a phenomenal resource, the Learning to Read Primers from the Amplify Center for Early Reading. Part 1 starts the conversation, Part 2 continues it.

This tweet thread explains my fondness for the Primers. Essentially, I appreciate that they unpack multiple aspects of how kids learn to read, from foundational skills to the role of content knowledge and vocabulary, with clarity as well as nice explanations of the brain science. (This thread also notes small flaws with a few slides; I’m hopeful that the authors are busy addressing them as I write.)

The bad news: this is the only free resource I know that meets this need.

There MUST be others. So friends, I need your help. What other resources – articles, papers, webinars – match the critiera above (free, clear and digestible, balanced, entry-level)? Let’s crowdsource this thing.

Ed Leaders Explaining the Key Themes

For those joining the current conversation about reading instruction, two editorials nicely frame the issues. I often use them as ‘Start Here’ resources.

1. Three district leaders, Brian Kingsley, Jared Myracle, and Robin McClellan, penned a viral EdWeek editorial, We Have a National Reading Crisis, that highlights key concerns about reading instruction in 2019. It was republished here without a paywall.

It includes an excellent summary of the headline stories:

“Here are five essential insights supported by reading research that educators should know—but all too often don’t:

– Grouping students by reading level is poorly supported by research, yet pervasive. For example, 9 out of 10 U.S. 15-year-olds attend schools that use the practice.

– Many teachers overspend instructional time on “skills and strategies” instruction, an emphasis that offers diminishing returns for student learning, according to a Learning First and the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy report this year.

– Students’ background knowledge is essential to reading comprehension. Curricula should help students build content knowledge in history and science, in order to empower reading success.

– Daily, systematic phonics instruction in early grades is recommended by the National Institute for Literacy, based on extensive evidence from the National Reading Panel.

– Proven strategies for getting all kids—including English-language learners, students with IEPs, and struggling readers—working with grade-level texts must be employed to ensure equitable literacy work.”

2. Sue Pimentel, lead author of the ELA Common Core standards, hit the key issues with reading instruction in her EdWeek piece, Why doesn’t every teacher know the research on reading instruction?  (Republished here without a paywall.)

Why Are These Resources So Invaluable?

We need intro-level resources because many educators are just arriving to the national conversation about reading instruction. On-ramps help!

In addition, some associate the term ‘science of reading’ with phonics instruction. Friends, it’s about more than just phonics. The above pieces all drive that message home.

Lastly, the literacy conversation has felt fragmented of late.  We’ve seen important conversation on phonics and phonemic awareness (details here), which have felt separate from the growing discussion about the importance of content knowledge. Other reading instruction issues get airtime, in blogs and articles. Yet I keep wondering: who is putting the pieces together for educators?

Over the last year, I’ve felt that this fragmented discussion may be compounding confusion, and it’s time for us to de-silo-fy these dialogues.

ILA 2019 Was a Reminder of the Need

I started this blog a while back, but some of the tweets coming out of the ILA conference this week reminded me to finish it.

The need for a balanced take on how kids learn to read was clear in #edutwitter this week. Go to Twitter, search #ILA19 and “phonics”, and see the hot mess of perspectives. There are signs of a reading wars redux… which is SO regrettable.

Many folks seem to be talking past each other:

  • People claiming that phonics advocates want “phonics-only” or mostly-phonics instruction.
  • People asserting that some educators believe kids learn to read simply by engaging with excellent books.

I don’t see evidence of either. What I do see: plenty of people painting others with whom they have differences in an extreme light.

My hunch: most of those #ILA19 Tweeters would agree with the How Kids Learn to Read Primers (1 and 2). Or would find them super-insightful. I believe we need to find the balanced middle in this discussion; kids lose when we can’t.

I expect to write more on these themes. Also, if I hear back with resources that should be added to this blog, I will do a happy dance, add them here, and sing their praises in social media and beyond!


Published inLiteracyScience of ReadingUncategorized


  1. Marnie Ginsberg Marnie Ginsberg

    Karen, I love how you’re getting great ideas out so persuasively and rapidly. I’m sorry I didn’t meet you at The Reading League conference!

    What do you think about this post that I wrote as another possible primer on how children learn to read: ?


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