What’s the Difference?
Learning to read verses reading to learn.
If you’ve been around education circles for any length of time, you’ve probably heard this phrase.
And when you look at it logically, it makes sense that one comes before the other…kind of…
I mean, you do need to know how to read before you can actually read a book and know what information it’s telling you.
But does learning to read really come first and then once you’ve mastered that task, you move on to reading to learn?
Do you truly have to navigate this transition between learning to read and reading to learn?
Or is there a better way?
The more I pondered this learning process, the more these questions came to the surface:
Why do one without the other? Why are they separate things in the first place?
Have I thoroughly confused you yet? Let’s back up a bit and see if we can get a handle on the full scope of this idea of learning to read verses reading to learn.
Learning to Read
First up: What on earth does the phrase “learning to read” even mean?
Well, these 3 words refer to the process of learning to read. (Bet you never saw that one coming, huh?)
In other words, it’s the process of teaching a child that the symbols on the page of a book (or the symbols called letters in this blog post you’re reading) have a meaning behind them. Each symbol stands for a specific sound. And when you combine the symbols and sounds together, they create words. Those words, in turn, represent ideas, things, thoughts, feelings, actions, and more.
Now, traditionally, when a child begins their school journey, they start learning to read. They begin by learning the sounds that correlate with the symbols. They begin putting those sounds together to form words. (Or they are taught sight words – but that’s another topic for another day!)
One of the main goals of the lower elementary grades (kindergarten through 2nd grade) is teaching children HOW to read.
Quick side note: This is a good thing! Children need to know how to read and I believe that every child should learn how to read well. One of the first foundational building blocks of a child’s learning journey starts with learning how to read. Please don’t misunderstand the importance of this foundational block!
Reading to Learn
But what about the other half of the phrase, “reading to learn”? What’s that all about?
This phrase refers to the fact that at a certain point in their school journey, a child is no longer taught HOW to read (the mechanical part of putting the sounds together to form words). Instead, they are expected to read something, understand what the words just said, and learn (expanding their knowledge) from what they have just read.
For example, let’s say a 3rd grade class is handed a page with 4 short paragraphs about reindeer. At the bottom of the page are 5 simple-to-answer questions about the paragraphs on the same page. The phrase “reading to learn” implies that the child will read the 4 paragraphs about reindeer, understand what they have read, and will be able to answer the 5 questions correctly. All the information they need to answer these 5 questions is on the page, the children simply need to understand what they read to be able to answer the questions.
This shift to being given things to read and learning from the written pages will continue throughout your child’s educational journey – all the way into college and beyond!
Again, this is a good thing! Being able to pick up a book, read the words contained in it and learn from those words opens up a whole new world for your child. And it allows them to be able to learn about subjects that you may not know much about.
But there’s a piece in the middle that we seem to have skipped over. The piece that comes between learning how to piece the sounds of the symbols into words and being able to understand and answer questions about words you just read.
It’s the piece of not only sounding out the word, but understanding what the words say.
This is reading comprehension.
It’s a big, scary phrase, I know – but don’t let it scare you! When you break it down, reading comprehension simply means understanding what you have read.
The Missing Piece
And yet, this simple piece of understanding what you have read is what makes the traditional transition from learning to read to reading to learn so incredibly hard!
Traditionally, when a child is taught how to read, there is no focus on understanding the meaning of the words – only on making the correct sounds. And then a switch flips and all of a sudden a child is supposed to understand what they are reading without being given the tools to understand!
No wonder this transition is so difficult for so many!
But does it have to be this way? Does it have to be a horrible process with dread and fear and angst?
I contend that, no. It doesn’t have to be like this at all!
And herein lies one of the beautiful benefits of homeschooling! You see, learning to read does not have to be separated from the meaning of what you are reading. In other words, you don’t have to separate the idea of learning to read and reading to learn.
Now, you might read that and think: Yes! That’s what I want to do! I want my child to not only know how to read, but to understand what they’re reading from the very start!
But then you sit back and wonder…how do you even begin to make that happen? How on earth do you teach your child to read and teach them to understand all at the same time?
The Big Idea
Before we get into some simple, practical ways you can teach your children to read and understand what they’re reading, let’s take a moment to make sure we understand the big picture. You see, if you don’t understand what you’re trying to teach, it makes it much more challenging for everyone!
I like to think of learning to read (matching the symbols and sounds), reading comprehension (understanding), and reading out loud together as a 3-stranded braid. Can you teach only one of these 3 elements? Yes. Will it be as effective without the other 2? No! They are far better when woven tightly together.
So, in other words, as you begin teaching your children how to read, you also want them to hear books read aloud, you want to give them opportunities to read out loud, and all along the way you want to make sure they understand what they’re reading.
That sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it?
Let’s see if we can break it down some more…
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Reading Out Loud
This element is probably the simplest one of them all. All you have to do is pick up a book and read with your child!
But don’t think this piece is just your child reading out loud to you. You need to do a lot of the reading as well. You see, when children hear the natural cadence and energy and emotion of someone reading to them, they begin to learn how to inflict this emotion into their own reading. And when a child begins to use cadence, rhythm, and emotion as they read out loud, that’s a big marker to tell you that they are truly understanding the words they are reading.
If you’re looking for some books that you and your child can read together, here are a couple of our favorites:
- Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle
- Go, Dog! Go! by PD Eastman
- A-Z Mysteries by Ron Roy
- National Park Mystery Series by Mary Morgan
Teaching Your Child How to Read
When it comes to teaching your child how to read, there are many different tools and methods you can find. But I truly believe that the most effective tool in teaching your child how to read is to simply sit down with them and begin working through the symbols and sounds of the alphabet.
Now, it does help if your children have an awareness of the alphabet – if they have been sitting next to you, watching the pages as you read out loud to them. If they have been starting to connect sounds to the specific symbols.
But no matter what, sitting down with your child and working through the sounds of each individual letter, then putting those sounds together to create a word is one of the most effective ways to teach your child how to read.
One of the best resources I’ve found for helping teach the sounds of the alphabet is the BOB Books. This 5-box set will walk you and your child through the entire alphabet letter by letter, allowing your child small victories of reading each tiny book included in each box. It also gives you as the parent a very easy to follow pattern (it’s even numbered!) so you’ll never wonder what should come next.
The most important piece of teaching your child to read is simply sitting with them, patiently working through each sound, and helping them learn how they can put these sounds together to read words.
It sounds very intimidating to start teaching your child to understand what they read, doesn’t it? But in reality, this isn’t a hard thing to do.
For example, let’s say you’re reading the book ‘Go, Dog! Go!’ by P.D. Eastman. As you read this book, pause and ask your child some questions about what they are reading. Here’s a few questions to get you started (there are specific to ‘Go, Dog! Go!’ so tailor them to work for the book you choose!):
- What just happened?
- What color are the dogs?
- Which dog is your favorite?
- How are the dogs getting different places?
You could even ask your child something silly like “Do the dogs like riding on the train?” And let your child correct you, telling you that in this book the dogs don’t ride on trains.
You see, when your child understands the story as you’re reading it, you know they are comprehending, or understanding, what is being read.
You can even ask these simple questions as your child is reading out loud to you. These questions serve as a simple double check that they are not only able to convert the symbols into a word, but understand the meaning of the words they are reading.
The Final Page
As you begin teaching your child to read, it’s very easy to feel discouraged. Many days it can feel like you’re moving at a glacial pace, not getting any real work done!
But take heart, my Friend! All those moments, all those times of sitting and working with your child add up to a firm foundation of knowing how to read and knowing how to understand what they are reading.
And do you want to know the best part?
When you start focusing on helping your child understand what they are reading from the very beginning, the transition between learning to read and reading to learn all but disappears! Instead, it turns into a seamless curve in their learning journey that you may not even notice.
And it’s all because you made the choice to sit down with your child, teaching them to read, reading to them, and helping them understand what they are reading.
- My Favorite Books…According to My 5-Year-Old
- My Favorite Books…According to My 7-Year-Old
- My Favorite Books…According to My 9-Year-Old
- Why Is Reading with Your Kids so Important?
- How To Teach Your Child to Read in a Simple, Easy Way, Part 1
Looking for some of the books or materials mentioned on this page? Click on the photo below to purchase your own copy today.
Elizabeth Tatham, founder of Inspiration in the Everyday, is a homeschooling momma of 5 who loves helping other homeschooling mommas create a unique homeschooling adventure your kids will love…without the overwhelm! Join in on the journey with 7 simple steps to make your homeschooling day go faster, easier, and with less tears here.