Imagine going to work each day and being unable to read signs or instructions. You might feel defeated, frustrated – even isolated. 

Now imagine that you are a young student going to school and struggling with reading. You would experience similar, discouraging feelings as you fall further behind in class. That is why the shift from learning to read to reading to learn is so important. When students struggle with making this shift, it can have serious consequences.

When children first start school, they are taught to read. They learn the alphabet and how to identify words by sounds and sight. This is not only an essential skill for children to have, but it is also necessary if they want to learn how to read.

Once a child has learned how to read, they need to use this skill to learn new things. There are two main reasons why children need to learn to read before they’re asked to use reading to learn:

  1. A solid reading foundation proves to be beneficial later on in life
  2. Children build overall confidence in their abilities as readers


What’s the Difference?

The first and most obvious difference is that when children are learning to read, they are often taught by someone else. However, when children are reading to learn, they usually do so on their own with less help from a teacher or parent.

Another difference is the purpose behind each type of reading. When children learn to read, they are trying to get better at reading words to understand them better. This can be done at any age, but it is usually taught before they reach 4th grade. Children often need guidance from their educators or parents while they practice this skill until it becomes second nature.

On the other hand, when children read for pleasure or academic purposes, they might not even know what the words mean or even care about them as long as they understand what is being said to some degree. It is not uncommon for children to skip over parts of a book that seem boring or difficult to read.


Breaking Down Learning to Read

Learning to read is a complex process that involves many different skills and strategies. It’s not just about memorizing sight words and sounding out letters. It’s about phonemic awareness or the understanding that words are composed of sounds, and those sounds have distinct articulatory features.

When children first learn to read, they’re reading with a purpose: to learn new words. Students look at letters and words in a book and try to figure out what they mean. They may also try to figure out what sounds those letters make when they say them. For example, if an “o” is on its own, students might think that it’s pronounced like “oh,” but if it’s part of a word like “hot,” then it will sound more like “hut.”

According to a National Center To Improve the Tools of Educators report, there are 10 principles to follow when learning to read:

  1. Create an appreciation of the written word
  2. Develop awareness of printed language
  3. Learn the alphabet
  4. Understand the relation between letters and words
  5. Understand that language is made of words, syllables, and phonemes
  6. Learn letter sounds
  7. Sound out new words
  8. Identify words in print accurately and easily
  9. Know spelling patterns
  10. Learn to read reflectively

As students practice reading more and more, their brains will begin associating the sounds with specific letters and combinations of letters. Eventually, their brain will begin recognizing entire words without seeing the individual letters that make up those words, known as sight-reading.. the brain knows how to sound out words without having to focus on each letter individually.


Breaking Down Reading to Learn

The shift from learning to read to reading to learn happens around 4th grade. It is important because it helps students become more independent learners and better equipped for success in school and life beyond.

When students are learning to read, they may focus on decoding words and making sense of the words they see on the page. They may also be focused on memorizing sight words to decode text more quickly. However, as they progress in their reading abilities, they will begin using reading as a tool for learning new information. This means that when they encounter unfamiliar words in their reading, they will look them up in a dictionary or ask someone who knows more about the topic at hand if necessary.

For example, if your student is reading about physics for an assignment, they might come across unfamiliar terms like “electric field” or “magnetic field.” They might have been taught enough about electricity and magnetism through previous lessons and understand what these words mean —but if they don’t know what these terms mean, or if they need further clarification before proceeding with an assignment, it would be helpful for them to understand how to look up these terms in the dictionary and read the definitions of the terms themselves.

That is exactly why students need to learn to read before they take the giant leap into reading to learn.


Making the Shift

The most important educational skill your students will learn is reading. A report from the Center for Public Education states, “Because reading is the gateway skill to further learning, children who cannot read proficiently seldom catch up academically…”

Reading instruction in early education needs to be strategic and effective and requires a smooth shift in instructional skills. This balance is from the finite skills of learning to read to the development of comprehension skills while reading to learn.

Finite skills are what we think about when we discuss phonics, phonemic awareness, and decoding. In contrast, comprehension skills consist of fluency, vocabulary, and strategic development. 

Learning to read and reading to learn should be a simultaneous and continuous process as students make their way through school. Moving towards a commitment to provide equitable literacy instruction to all students is just one step we can take to ensure our students are successful in school and beyond.



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