Ask Reading Kingdom: Does a child require supervision to be able to learn to read?

learn to read

Reagan (teacher) asks:

Does a child require supervision to be able to learn to read? If you put a 5 year old kid in a room full of books, could he/she hypothetically learn to read without a teacher?

Reading Kingdom answers:

According to ancient records, people have been intrigued by questions like this for centuries. For example, the historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century BC, reported that the Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik carried out an experiment to see what language children would end up speaking if they heard no adult speaking a language to them. In case you’d like to know the conclusion, he decided that the Phrygian race must have predated the Egyptians since the child’s first utterance was something similar to the Phrygian word bekos, meaning “bread.”

The question took on more than academic interest in our own lifetimes with the rise of the whole language movement. Predicated on the belief that written language should be learned as readily as spoken language, it used a holistic approach which emphasized children’s love of literature. A central role was given to offering appealing books on the assumption that the children’s love of the material would lead them to effective reading and writing skills. It offered many useful components but the lack of rigor and discipline in the teaching of actual skills resulted in poor outcomes for many children. (See http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/97nov/read.htm if you would like to understand more about the controversies around whole language). As a result, the movement slowly lost its power although aspects of it continue in today’s reading scene. For example, journal writing—a core whole language writing activity—is the basis of daily writing in many, if not most primary school classes in the nation.

Still the whole language movement is relevant in answering your question. For most children, instruction in reading matters. A small percentage can and does learn on its own—but unfortunately very little is known about how they do what they do. There seem to be two main groups. One is termed “early readers.” These are generally highly verbal children who are intent on learning to read and do so well before they enter school. The other group is termed “hyperlexics.” These are generally children on the autism spectrum who love books and who learn to decode anything and everything even though their own speech is limited and their spoken language skills are far below the language they can read.

I have seen children from both groups and in all cases, they had some contact with hearing the language that was embedded in the books. For example, one hyperlexic boy listened intently to Sesame Street for about a three week period and heard lots about the ways in which letters get linked to sounds. From that experience alone, he became a superb decoder of the words on the printed page. So it seems clear that some children can learn without a teacher. It is less clear if they can learn without hearing spoken language input (in some form such as from the speaker of a TV set).

This information does contain major implications for the future. Certainly, however, most if not all children need a “teacher” to learn to read. But that teacher need not be a live person. Particularly as technology gets more and more sophisticated, the “teacher” could be a device that is programmed to impart, in an appealing and efficient way, the essentials of reading to all children. This would allow individualization of instruction to become real and meaningful goal, while freeing human teachers to attend to areas where their skills are essential.

Reading Kingdom provides a unique learning environment for children that helps them learn to read without assistance.  Sign your child up for a free 30 day trial and see how our reading program can help your child.  Lingo and company will see you soon!