Reading is Not a Natural Process

Parents like when their children learn in a natural way.
It seems like the purest way of learning. Instruction-free,  minimum of processing, in accordance with nature and, entirely to be expected.

However, the problem with natural learning is that it cannot always be taken for granted.
How many apples had fallen before Newton came up ‘naturally’ with his theory of gravity?
How many children have discovered the concept of probability while playing in a park?
How many children have learnt academic vocabulary on their own?

Some parents might disagree. At the end of the day, children learn to speak in a natural way and child’s brain is actually wired to produce words and sentences. There is even a part of the brain responsible for speech. If the child is exposed to language, they will start to speak. This should not surprise. Humans speech capacities have been evolving for more than 100.000 years.

Unfortunately, things don’t work the same way with reading. If learning to read was an easy, natural process we would not have children who are illiterate, we would not talk about children at risk of developing reading difficulties,  we would not have hundreds of early years interventions and programs aiming at improving children’s reading attainment.

How many children do you know who have learnt how to read on their own?

I know one – Matilda Wormwood (see photo) a five-year-old precocious girl who learnt to read on her own and became a highly-proficient reader as evidenced by her choice of reading material (Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, Animal Farm, Moby Dick etc.).  The problem is she only the title character of the children’s novel Matilda by Roald Dahl.

Although there is indeed a very small group of children,  who learn to read well at very early age without any specific instruction, the majority of children (95%) are not in this group. Precocious readers such as Matilda are rare.
Furthermore, up to 20 percent of children have actual difficulty in reading which affects their learning and the future.


Reading doesn’t come easily to children and reading is not a natural process.
Children rarely learn to read without direct instruction and conscious instructional effort.
There is also no part of the brain which is specifically responsible for reading.

Keith Stanovic (1995)  said:

The idea that learning to read is just like learning to speak is accepted by no responsible linguist, psychologist, or cognitive scientist in the research community.

Also G. Reid Lyon in the article ‘Why Reading Is Not a Natural Process’ posited that:

Research over the past 35 years has not supported the view that reading development reflects a natural process—that children learn to read as they learn to speak, through natural exposure to a literate environment.

Children to become proficient readers have to develop:

  • phonemic awareness
  • phonics
  • vocabulary
  • automaticity in decoding
  • understanding of grammar and syntax
  • listening comprehension
  • background knowledge
  • fluency
  • reading comprehension skills and strategies

None of these components should be expected to develop in a natural way.
Children should be helped and supported by parents and teachers to develop these skills.

Highly influential National Reading Panel (2000) concluded that: phonemic awareness should be taught explicitly since the instruction is effective in teaching children to read, spell and also benefit reading comprehension. In the same vein, the Panel supported systematic phonics instruction since they help children learn to read more effectively. Finally, the Panel offered a strong support for explicit vocabulary and comprehension instruction.


Parents should understand that reading is one of the most important skills children need to develop.
Parents should be concerned about reading since it is a complex and challenging process.
Parents should be aware that early engagement in developing reading is highly beneficial for children.
Parents should take the responsibility for helping the child learn to read.

Here are some suggestions on what parents can do to help the child learn to read:

  • focus first on developing language  (it is the foundation of reading)
  • read to your child often and varied books
  • visit the library as often as possible
  • be surrounded by books
  • teach your child new vocabulary every day
  • make your child torture you to read aloud
  • develop child’s phonemic awareness
  • don’t be obsessed with phonics
  • discuss and talk to your child as often as possible
  • focus more on developing comprehension rather than on phonics
  • ask high-quality questions to develop child’s thinking
  • think with the end in mind – you want your child to become an independent proficient reader

Lyon, G. (1998, March). Why reading is not a natural process. Educational Leadership, 55(6), 14-18.

 National Reading Panel (US), National Institute of Child Health, & Human Development (US). (2000). Report of the national reading panel: 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.

Stanovich, K. (1995). Editorial, American Educator. Journal of American Federation of Teachers, Summer, p.4