Back to School: Jason Yeatman on How Children Learn to Read

Each fall, as they settle into the new school year, young students strengthen their literacy skills. Kindergarteners learn their letters, first- and second-graders build the lists of words they know by sight, and students in older grades practice how to get information from texts they read, distinguish fiction from nonfiction, write in paragraphs, and more.

Stanford’s Jason Yeatman, PhD, is an expert on the neurobiology of literacy: He studies what happens neurologically as children learn to read and conducts research on what the brain is doing differently in people with reading difficulties such as dyslexia. Yeatman, an assistant professor of pediatrics, of education, and of psychology at Stanford University, answered questions that parents may have about how children learn to read and how to identify when a child is struggling.

Q. What’s the normal age for children to learn to read?

Jason Yeatman: The timing of when children are taught to read is an educational decision. It varies a lot across different countries.

This is different from learning to speak. Around the world, kids all naturally learn to speak at around the same time in their development.

In the U.S., most kids start kindergarten before they turn 6, and when they enter kindergarten, they begin to learn the foundations to reading. Over the course of the kindergarten year, they need to learn all their letters, be able to recognize them and produce them in writing, know the sounds they represent, and be able to blend the letters and sounds together to make simple words.

Other countries start teaching reading at different times. In some Scandinavian countries, reading instruction doesn’t begin until after children turn 7.

Q. Can you say more about how learning to read differs from learning to speak and understand spoken language?

Yeatman: You don’t have to teach babies and kids how to acquire spoken language; you just talk to them. They’re predestined to pick up sounds, produce, and understand them. Kids learn to talk without anyone teaching them technical skills, such as how to make a rapid series of tongue and lip movements to produce a specific sound. You never have to say, “Now wait 30 milliseconds and allow a burst of air to make this sound.”

Reading is totally different: No number of books in front of them will make kids learn this on their own. It’s not a native thing in our biology. Instead, someone has to teach children the correspondence between an arbitrary symbol set and the sounds these symbols can represent.

Also, unlike learning to speak, there’s a lot of variety in kids’ biological readiness for learning to read. In some children’s brains, everything is set up in a way where reading is a relatively easy skill to acquire. But for most kids, it’s difficult and complicated. It doesn’t make sense at first.

Q. What skills form the building blocks for learning to read, and how might those predict reading readiness?

Yeatman: Phonological awareness is a big one. This refers to the child’s understanding of the sound structure of spoken language, such as being able to understand that the words “bat” and “ball” both start with the same sound.

Understanding this abstract idea is a foundational precursor to learning to read, especially in an alphabetic script like ours. If you can’t understand that “bat” and “ball” both start with the “ba” sound, how will you learn that symbols represent spoken sounds?

How fast children learn their letters and the corresponding sounds is also a predictor for reading readiness. Some kids pick this up quickly, and others require a lot of instruction and repeat practice. If a child is struggling to pick up the principle that symbols correspond to sounds, the next phases of reading are likely to be hard, too.

Q. How would a parent know if a child is struggling to learn to read, and what can schools and parents do to help?

Yeatman: Ideally, parents would be notified by their child’s school if their child is struggling to learn to read. In addition, if parents have some knowledge of the foundational skills I’ve mentioned, they can look for these indications on their own.

The scientific consensus is that schools should have a multitiered system of support for beginning readers. Some children enter kindergarten simply not having been exposed to their letters yet, and to a kindergarten teacher it may look like they’re at risk for struggling to learn to read, but in reality they have just not had an opportunity to learn. They may be able to quickly learn the foundations with a little bit of extra instruction.

Other children might get instruction and keep struggling. For children who are learning at a slower rate, ideally schools will offer focused reading instruction with one-on-one or small-group support.

If a child is struggling, parents should ask whether the school offers focused support, and also ask the child’s teacher if there are skills the parent and child can practice together at home, or if the child would benefit from additional professional tutoring.

Unfortunately, children who are struggling don’t always receive timely assessments of their reading skills. To help solve that problem, my Stanford lab is working to develop the Rapid Online Assessment of Reading, a research project in which we’re creating fun, game-like online tools that are rigorously tested and provide normative measures for reading skills.

We are planning for schools to be able to use the tests, and are also working on a free platform for parents. In the next few months, parents will be able to register their child for an account at our website,, and have their child take assessments to quickly get a sense of their phonological awareness, word recognition, and sentence reading skills. Rather than waiting three to six months to get an appointment for a formal evaluation with an educational psychologist, we aim to enable parents and schools to freely access these tools, which we are validating against gold-standard clinical assessments, so they can quickly decide how concerned to be about a student’s reading progress.

Q. Your lab also studies dyslexia. What are your most exciting findings?

Yeatman: Children with dyslexia struggle to read despite receiving high-quality instruction. A constellation of factors confer risk for dyslexia, including poor phonological processing and awareness, and subtle differences in the ways the child’s visual system processes information. It’s multifactorial, not a single deficit, and these characteristics fall on a spectrum of severity.

My Stanford research team has been studying how intensive intervention programs for children with dyslexia re-sculpt brain development. The brains of young kids are really plastic, and we have shown that if you get them into a high-quality reading program, you can measure changes in the physical structure of their neural connections over a period of weeks and months with new quantitative magnetic resonance imaging brain scans.

This is good news for parents. If your child has received a dyslexia diagnosis, you shouldn’t assume it is something they are stuck with. Our research has shown that intensive reading intervention is highly effective in improving reading skills among children with dyslexia, and also in changing the structure of their brains.

Parents seeking more information about dyslexia can speak to their child’s teacher or pediatrician, or read more about learning disorders at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health.


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