How Every Child Should Learn to Read: An Evidence-Based Guide

54% of adults in the United States have prose literacy below that expected of a 12-year-old; just 15% of Black 8th graders are at or above reading proficiency (U.S. Department of Education. 2020). So what’s going wrong?

While most children spontaneously learn to speak through osmosis and mimicking, they generally do not learn to read organically. All but those with the most natural ability in reading require rote instruction to achieve the level of fluency needed to begin practicing on their own. Even these most gifted readers will become proficient faster with appropriate instruction.

A child must overcome two main hurdles to reach the level of fluency and automation necessary to succeed in their education and adult life. The first is learning phonics, which is essential for decoding written English, and generally must be explicitly taught.

A second barrier to reading proficiency occurs between ages 7 and 10. At this point, the child will have learned to decode phonetically but will require significant practice to automate their reading. This stage is analogous to learning to drive: after successfully getting their license, teenagers must practice until driving becomes second nature. In the case of reading, this is made more difficult by the lack of literature targeted at readers in this age range.

Fortunately, there is a structured method for reading instruction that is very effective for most children, including people with Dyslexia, and can be implemented by most parents. Multiple programs may be advertised within the category of structured literacy, but the only one that has been proven by the science of reading, with a broad scope of scientific research conducted over decades is Direct Instruction (created by Siegfried Engelmann). It is recommended that most children begin reading instruction at age 4 (roughly preschool age). However, it should be noted that children develop at different rates and may be ready to learn to read at different ages (with 3.5–5 years being the most common).

The best starting point for parents who want an evidence-based reading program is the book “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons”, which can be purchased from Amazon for under $20 (Polygon receives no kickbacks from book sales). This 100-day program includes complete and detailed instructions for each lesson. The lessons are best implemented daily for 100 days, with each lesson taking 12 minutes on average. The program should be very manageable for most parents, but it requires daily preparation and diligence in daily implementation. It is also worth mentioning that this program is not intended for children who have already learned to read but are struggling to read quickly and/or accurately.

Research suggests that completing the 100-day program will advance an average 4-year-old to the reading level of a 7-year-old. At this point, the book lays out additional steps to help guide the child from reading at the level of a 7-year-old to a 10-year-old in several months following the completion of the 100-day program.

When the child reaches the reading level of a 10-year-old, they generally have crossed the threshold at which they can continue practicing and building their reading proficiency more independently and organically. The guiding principle for helping children at this stage is to gradually increase the difficulty and complexity of reading material, analogously to how weightlifters progressively lift heavier and heavier weights.

Looking for a dyslexia test? Check out Polygon!



Polygon is a new kind of psychology practice specializing in online testing and support for dyslexia, ADHD, and other learning differences.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store

Polygon is a new kind of psychology practice specializing in online testing and support for dyslexia, ADHD, and other learning differences.