How do we Learn to Read?


Reading is so important. You read every day, at school and at home. You might read your favourite book for fun, and you also read to learn lots of new things.

Right now you are probably reading this without having to think too much about what you are doing.  However, reading is very complex, requiring lots of different skills.  Once we can read well, it's easy to take for granted what we do when we read. Learning to read takes time and for some children, it can be very difficult.

We can identify different stages in learning to read. Click on each of the steps at the side to find out more about each one.

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The beginning of reading starts when you are tiny. You probably don't remember the first time your mum or dad read to you! But listening to other people as you look at books together, thinking about the story, the pictures and the symbols on the page is important. And fun!  Soon, you will want to read yourself, but you have not yet learnt what all the symbols on the page mean.


These symbols are letters. You need to learn what they stand for otherwise it is all nonsense.  You need to crack the code! You need to learn that the letters in the alphabet code for different sounds, that A sounds like ‘ah’, B like ‘buh’ and so on. This is called phonics. Children in the UK start to learn about phonics when they first go to school.


Once you have learnt what letters sound like on their own, you need to to know what letters sound like when they are added together. When we see the letters s and h together, we know the ‘suh’ and the ‘huh’ merge together to sound like ‘shhhh’. When you are able to do this you can blend lots of different letter sounds together to make words. S-H-I-P gets blended together to become ‘ship’, C-A-T to ‘cat’.

merging phonics

But we don't just read to sound words out. We read because we want to know what the words mean. When we read the word ‘cat’ we want to know that it refers to a cuddly pet. If we see the word cat in a story, we want to know what the cat is doing. You have to tie lots of words together to read sentences and paragraphs in order to create and understand a whole story.


The more we read, the more words we learn. These become stored in a sort of ‘mental dictionary’ in our brains. So when we see the word ‘cat’ we just know it says cat and we can picture a cat. We don’t need to sound it out letter by letter. We just know it.  That means we are quicker to read. And we find it easier to read exciting stories. What's your favourite story?

mental dictionary

As you have just found out, reading is very complex. You need to be able to use language, sound out letters and words, understand the meanings and use a lot of memory and brain power to bring this all together. Not all children find learning to read easy.  They might struggle with some or all of these processes. It is important we do research to find out more about how children learn to read. This will help us to help children who find reading difficult.


We know quite a bit about reading, but there's lots more to for us to find out. How do we get better and better, quicker and quicker at reading? Why are some words like ‘cat’ easy while other words take more time to learn? How many times do you need to see a word to learn it? How do we put words together to understand sentences and whole stories? And so on. There's always lots of questions to be answered at ReadOxford…