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How do we learn to read?

 colorful books on shelves in a library

11-year-old Alaska (from Colorado) wants to know: why do some kids love reading while others don’t? We know there’s a lot of debate lately about the best ways to teach kids how to read. But in this episode we leave the pedagogy to adults and let kids share with one another why they love to read and their best tips for kids like them, who may be struggling to learn (and love) to read. Plus, guest Fumiko Hoeft, medical doctor and professor at the University of Connecticut and at the University of California San Francisco, lifts the lid on our brains to explain what’s happening inside us when we learn to read. Dr. Hoeft runs a brain imaging research program and a lab called BrainLENS.

Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slide | Transcript

  • Reading is not something our brain is wired to do; it’s not an innate part of being human, like learning to walk or communicate verbally. Writing–and being able to read that writing–developed a little more than 5,000 years ago. So in the scope of human history, reading and writing are really new skills!
  • So learning to read is hard! We have to lean on a lot of different parts of our brain, including the vision and auditory parts, and the parts that help us learn new skills.
  • When you are reading, part of your brain (the frontoparietal network) is acting as the conductor to bring all the necessary parts of the brain together to do this complex skill.
  • People learn differently, and there are some people who really struggle to read. Dyslexia is one type of learning challenge. People with dyslexia struggle to read fluently and spell words correctly, but these struggles are often limited to reading and don’t have an impact on other skills, like math. People with dyslexia need specialized support in learning to read.
  • Lots of adults have been debating the best ways to help kids of all different learning styles and abilities read well. But most researchers agree that starting early can be helpful. Especially if you need a little extra help; getting assistance early can make a big difference.
  • In most human societies and cultures, reading and writing are critical skills that help you be able to know what’s going on around you (like reading signs on streets and buildings), to share information, and to be able to communicate with one another.
  • Plus, reading can be really fun! Give a listen to the episode to get tons of tips and ideas for ways to make reading exciting.
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.

But Why is a project of Vermont Public.

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