Ideally, children learn to read as they learn to speak — they start with what is known, and inch out, little by little, into the unknown. All new information must connect to old, as scientists found in neurological studies in the 1990s.
For the scientifically minded, here’s how the process works.
A baby’s brain has neurons. The neurons are those specialized nerve cells that transmit information to and from the brain.
In order to speak fluently and, later, read fluently, these separate neurons need to connect. And the way they connect is through myelin, a thin, fatty substance that coats the ends of the neurons, called the axons. In the beginning, babies don’t have much myelin. But as they have repeated exposure to something, their myelin thickens over time, almost like an old-style dipped candle. Layer by layer, the myelin — like the wax of old — gradually thickens.
The neurons require thousands of layers of myelin to create highways to frontal lobe. And all these neurons together are like gravel on a road. I live on a gravel road, and driving without paving, is bumpy, slow, and dirty.
Once the gravel is connected by asphalt, then the road becomes smooth and efficient.
In speech, as children speak the same words again and again, their brain produces myelin and they become fluent.
In reading, children need to read the same words again and again, so their brain produces myelin and they become fluent. They’ve changed from a gravel road to a myelin superhighway in the brain.
There’s just one problem with developing myelin for reading. In order to make myelin, the neurons must fire rapidly. But in order to fire rapidly, the neurons need myelin.
It’s a total catch-22! You need myelin to read well, but you need to read well to make myelin.
So how does anyone learn to read?!
In order to start to build myelin when reading, read books to your beginning readers before they read them. Give your children the chance to hear a book read well, with good phrasing and inflection — let your voice rise and fall, according to the events. No monotone reading!
And after your children know what the story is about, only then let them read it.
And let them read it more than once! They are building thousands of layers of myelin for their brains’ highways, so repeated reads are vitally important. The brain continues to process when its reading the same book again and again.
In fact, the key to fluency is multiple reads on familiar material.
It’s familiar material, so the neurons can fire rapidly, which produces myelin. Having more myelin creates more automaticity.
And soon your children will be reading on a superhighway, rather than traveling down a bumpy gravel road.