We know how kids learn to read, so why are we failing to teach them?

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MORE than 5000 years after the invention of writing, you would think we would have completely nailed the best way to teach people to read – literacy is a key skill in most societies, after all. But you would be wrong. Not only have scientists long disagreed on the most effective methods, but their arguments have fuelled a decades-long, politicised “reading war” over how to teach children to read English.

Meanwhile, large numbers of children are struggling to achieve the standards they should for their age. Last year, just 33 per cent of 9 and 10-year-olds in the US were assessed as being proficient or advanced readers. “The US has done poorly in teaching kids to read for a long time,” says Mark Seidenberg, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And the problem isn’t confined to English-speaking countries: there is also confusion about how to teach children to read other languages.

A key battleground is a teaching technique known as phonics. In the US, poor literacy is often blamed on having too little phonics in the classroom. But, confusingly, researchers last year argued that children in England are being failed by being taught too much phonics. Herein lies the root of the problem: it is one thing to understand how kids learn to read and, it turns out, quite another to figure out how best to teach them. The good news is that researchers, having begun to enter the classroom, are finally getting to grips with how they can translate their insights to improve teaching and, ultimately, bring an end to the reading wars.

For 400 years …

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