Removing the Frustration of Learning to Read.™
To Get More Children Reading, Let Them Experiment Through Play —
  by Russ Fugal

10 million – 15 million children in the United States are struggling with literacy, and the outlook of our ability to solve this problem is grim. Reading instruction suffers a wide efficacy gap. This is a multi-generational problem. Not only do nearly two in three children struggle with reading and test below proficiency benchmarks for their grade level, many children of previous generations who struggled with reading instruction have grown to adults who now live with low literacy. Over 36 million adults lack basic literacy skills.1 This is not a new problem, and there are no shortages of studies on the topic.

Children nationwide are tested for reading skills in a National Assessment of Educational Progress. Nearly one third of students in fourth grade are below basic competency, and only about one third are actually proficient. The disparity only becomes more pronounced when looking at individual classrooms. The U.S. Department of Education has reported a 78 point gap in classroom mean reading scores, 28 points above the national average in some classrooms and 46 points below the national average in others.2 Still, even in classrooms with higher than average scores, evidence based instruction does not affect all students equally. Recent research shows that phonemic decoding and lexical reading are separate cognitive processes which are not codependent.3 Roughly 20% of students may be considered dyslexic4 because they do not gain proficiency in phonemic decoding despite common instruction and progress in lexical reading ability.

To a ready audience, principles of phonemic decoding should be successfully taught in 50-100 hours of instruction, with some curriculum claiming fewer than 35 hours.5 Over four years, from Kindergarten through 3rd Grade, a child will attend 3,300 hours of classroom instruction. In theory, over these four years, every classroom should be able to teach the basics of phonemic decoding ten, twenty, even one hundred times over, yet 64% of students in these classrooms are reading below proficiency. Four years later, by 8th Grade, 25% of students are still reading at or below 4th Grade proficiency. Teaching of decoding rules and strategies alone is insufficient attain fluency. The only way to become good at reading is to practice.

Practice requires repetition. Children appreciate repetition of what interests them. If they catch a jingle, a one liner, or a short story that entertains them, they will repeat it again, and again, and again … occasionally ad nauseum until parental intervention. Children enjoy attentional autonomy, and quickly lose interest in an activity or engagement that does not interest them. It is often thought that children have short attention spans, but children simply have fleeting and autonomous attention spans. In a 2009 Opinion piece in the New York Times on the intelligence of babies and young children, UC Berkley researcher Alison Gopnik wrote that, “When we say that preschoolers can’t pay attention, we really mean that they can’t not pay attention: they have trouble focusing on just one event and shutting out all the rest.”6 Gopnik refers to this restless attention as lantern consciousness, and contrasts it to adult’s spotlight consciousness.

One approach to increase opportunity for practice is to teach the basics of literacy at progressively younger ages. Many activists advocate for academic preschools to give children, especially the disadvantaged, an academic head start. However, studies show that while those who attended preschools centered on teacher-led academic training show early academic gains over those who attended play-based preschools, by the end of fourth grade these initial gains vanish.7 Children from play-based preschools perform better and get significantly higher grades in school than those from the academic preschools.8 In her 2009 New York Times article Gopnik also wrote, “Many think that babies, like adults, should learn in a focused, planned way. So parents put their young children in academic-enrichment classes or use flashcards to get them to recognize the alphabet … But babies’ intelligence, the research shows, is very different from that of adults and from the kind of intelligence we usually cultivate in school.” As children grow, their intelligence and consciousness slowly shifts from the lantern type to the spotlight type due to neurobiology. Attempting to accelerate the shift through training can backfire. In a twenty year study, adults who attended an academic preschool showed more instances of friction with other people, were more likely to have shown evidence of emotional impairment, were less likely to be married and living with their spouse, and were far more likely to have committed a crime.9


According to Gopnik, new research shows that babies can be rational without being adult like, or goal-oriented. Gopnik continued her opinion piece, writing that “[adults] focus on the outcomes that are the most relevant to their goals.” In an experiment adults were shown a video of several people tossing a ball to one another and were asked to count how many passes particular people made. In the middle of the video, a person in a gorilla suit walked slowly through the middle of the screen. Gopnik commented on the study, “A surprising number of adults, intent on counting, didn’t even seem to notice the unexpected gorilla … Adults focus on objects that will be most useful to them … Adults rely more on what they already know … Babies explore; adults exploit.” Allowing for exploration, for play, allows children to develop in more appropriate ways.

To improve literacy, time with children is better spent reading aloud, or even just conversing with children, than in early literacy interventions. “Reading aloud to young children, particularly in an engaging manner, promotes emergent literacy and language development and supports the relationship between child and parent. In addition it can promote a love for reading which is even more important than improving specific literacy skills.”10

Adults may strive a little too hard to create unique lessons and experiences for children. Wrapping up her opinion piece in the New York Times, Alison Gopnik observes that, ”The learning that babies and young children do on their own, when they carefully watch an unexpected outcome and draw new conclusions from it, ceaselessly manipulate a new toy or imagine different ways that the world might be, is very different from schoolwork … Parents and other caregivers teach young children by paying attention and interacting with them naturally and, most of all, by just allowing them to play.” Finding a way to integrate learning to read naturally into normal play and exploration may be challenging, and may be at odds with current trends of evidence based instruction. However, closing the efficacy gap requires it.

Within the current goal-oriented paradigm: in the best cases phonemic decoding instruction is delayed in current pedagogies until a child is has developed robust phonemic awareness, in the worst cases a child’s self-esteem is degraded when burdened with an expectation of reading independence through phonemic decoding prior to being cognitively prepared. Carlsson-Paige wrote, “When children have educational experiences that are not geared to their developmental level or in tune with their learning needs and cultures, it can cause them great harm, including feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and confusion.”11 Similarly, psychologist Peter Gray wrote that “instructing a child in a concept which she either does not comprehend, or has little interest in learning undermines curiosity and inquisitiveness.”12 While long-term goal achievement is important, educators ought to be adopt the motto “first, do no harm.”

Though it might be seen as a paradox, closing the efficacy gap in reading instruction may require a loosening of goal-oriented milestones. When in doubt, it is better to fall back to exploration and play to allow the brain to develop as it has evolved to do. Referring to Gopnik’s research, educator Scott Sampson wrote, “If this view has merit, the evolution of prolonged childhoods, with their playful, butterfly-like explorations, enabled our human ancestors to adapt to whatever circumstances they found themselves in. And if so, we owe a great debt of thanks to earlier generations of children for our unrivaled success as a species. In a very real sense, play made us human.”13 Simply reading to children more and exploring the world of text in new and interesting ways which they appreciate and choose may open the door to innovative approaches that close the gap.

Works Cited

1 Desjardins, R., et al. OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills. 2013. Retrieved from

2 Binkley, Marilyn, and Trevor Williams. Reading Literacy in the United States. Findings from the IEA Reading Literacy Study. US Government Printing Office, 1996.

3 Díaz, Gretel Sanabria, et al. "Changes in reading strategies in school-age children." The Spanish journal of psychology 12.2 (2009): 441-453.

4 Moats, Louisa C, and Karen E Dakin. “Dyslexia Basics.” International Dyslexia Association, 6 June 2017,

5 Engelmann, Siegfried, Phyllis Haddox, and Elaine Bruner. Teach your child to read in 100 easy lessons. Simon and Schuster, 1986.

6 Gopnik, Alison. “Your Baby Is Smarter Than You Think.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 Aug. 2009,

7 Marcon, Rebecca A. "Moving up the Grades: Relationship between Preschool Model and Later School Success." Early Childhood Research & Practice 4.1 (2002): n1.

8 Darling-Hammond, Linda, and Jon Snyder. "Curriculum studies and the traditions of inquiry: The scientific tradition." Handbook of research on curriculum (1992): 41-78.

9 Schweinhart, Lawrence J., and David P. Weikart. "The High/Scope preschool curriculum comparison study through age 23." Early childhood research quarterly 12.2 (1997): 117-143.

10 Duursma, Elisabeth, Marilyn Augustyn, and Barry Zuckerman. "Reading aloud to children: the evidence." Archives of disease in childhood 93.7 (2008): 554-557.

11 Carlsson-Paige, Nancy, Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin, and Joan W. Almon. "Reading instruction in kindergarten: Little to gain and much to lose." Boston, MA: Defending the Early Years (2015).

12 Gray, Peter. Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books, 2013, pg. 131

13 Sampson, Scott D. How to raise a wild child: the art and science of falling in love with nature. Mariner Books, 2016, pg. 157