Developing Reading Comprehension

The Reading Brain: What Parents, Teachers and Schools Need to Know About Their Children’s Reading Journey

The Reading Brain: What Parents, Teachers and Schools Need to Know About Their Children’s Reading Journey

By Tayla Smith, Foundation Phase Educator at Bellavista School

Adults generally take their ability to read for granted. We often forget the long journey each of us walked to become the proficient readers that we are. We quickly forget about the letters or the sounds that their combinations make that we had trouble remembering and how many times we misread words. At the time we confronted these challenges, we were, for the most part at least, completely unaware of the immensely complex developmental process that each of us were going through when we were walking the difficult journey of learning how to read. Gaining the ability to read is an amazing feat that none of us would have gained if something just short of magic didn’t happen in the ever-changing neural pathways of our brains. 

Learning to read is hard

Reading is an enormously complex task involving many neurological processes. In highlighting this, the highly regarded author, scholar and advocate for children and literacy, Maryanne Wolf, remarked that “reading is one of the single most remarkable conventions of our history. To read, the brain must access areas not designed for reading and develop reading by forming pathways and connections between different areas.” While it is known that humans are genetically wired for speech, as Wolf has famously remarked, humans were never born to read, and with the invention of reading, we rearranged the organisation of our brain which, in turn, expanded the ways we were able to think, and altered the intellectual evolution of our species. Unlike walking and talking, which develop as the human brain matures, reading must be taught explicitly. It is not a natural human activity (Ozernov & Palchik, 2016). 

The Reading War 

For the most part, global studies of early reading development have supported the view that there are five essential components to reading acquisition, being: the alphabet principle, phonemic awareness, oral reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension (U.S. National Reading Panel, 2000). These components form the scientific foundation for many instructional interventions and are used widely around the world in the development of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. 

Parents who learn about the developmental processes of literacy when they play their role in assisting their young readers develop their abilities, not only have to contend with these five components, but also often find themselves having to join the fierce ‘Reading War’. The Reading War,possibly better referred to as the ‘Phonics War’, has been passionately and strongly debated and discussed for decades in education. 

The ‘War’ commenced in the 1980’s when differing ideas and approaches to teaching reading collided. On the one side of the battlefield are those who believe that explicit phonics instruction, which is now often referred to as the Structured Literacy approach, is the best way to teach reading. On the other side of the battlefield are those who believe that reading should be taught as a whole-language approach. 

While the battel rages on, Structured Literacy has generally become a preferred approach when teaching literacy in the classroom. While all the reasons for this are too complex to fully unpack here, a strong draw card of Structured Literacy is that it has its basis in the science of reading. 

Structured Literacy 

Structured Literacy provides rules and strategies that a child can learn and internalise to master English’s well known written word complexities. While the whole-language approach requires young learners to learn each written word by sight and memory, Structured Literacy equips a young learner to be able to unpack and decode unfamiliar words. There is less emphasis on rote learning, and more emphasis on rules that govern written words. 

Structured Literacy has four principles, which can be broken down and detailed as follows: 

  1. Explicit Teaching 
  • Literacy concepts are taught using an explicit and a direct approach to teaching.
  • The language used must be precise and consistent for teaching strategies and skills, and as and when, scaffolding is provided. 
  • Never assume learning is taking place. The role of the teacher is to model, verbalise and guide learners. 
  1. Systematic and Sequential
  • Literacy concepts are provided systematically and follow a specific scope and sequence. 
  • These literary concepts are provided in a logical order, progressing in complexity from the easiest to more difficult. 
  1. Cumulative 
  • The phonics instruction is cumulative, building upon the principles and concepts previously taught. 
  1. Diagnostic Teaching to inform Planning
  • Continuously monitor the progress made by a learner. 
  • Assessment tools can be both informal (observations) and formal (assessments).
  • Individualise instruction according to group or learner’s needs. 


While there is no perfect science, Structured Literacy is, as things stand, based on the best science. Young readers, and their parents who help them through the reading journey, stand to benefit from the Structured Literacy approach.

For more information, visit 


National Reading Panel (US), National Institute of Child Health, & Human Development (US). (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: Reports of the subgroups. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.

Ozernov‐Palchik, O., & Gaab, N. (2016). Tackling the ‘dyslexia paradox’: reading brain and behavior for early markers of developmental dyslexia. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 7(2), 156-176.

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