The sweaty sounding-out stage builds reading muscle

We want young children’s lives to be fun, and free of struggle and hard work. We want them to enjoy reading, like we do. So listening to young children reading simple books containing the spelling patterns they’ve been taught in phonics lessons (decodable books) can be quite painful, and a little confronting, for adults.

They grunt and groan and sweat their way through the words. Most of their cognitive horsepower gets used up just extracting the words from the page, and they don’t understand much of what they’ve read. It’s certainly not fluent. It looks and sounds more like hard slog than fun.

However, inside a child’s brain, something extraordinary is happening. They’re creating a new brain circuit linking the visual areas at the back of the brain with the language areas on the left. They’re shifting some tasks usually done on the left side over to the right hemisphere, and repurposing left hemisphere brain cells for reading. See this 2015 blog post for the science behind this.

Lack of understanding of the importance and value of this stage is probably how predictable/repetitive texts got a foothold in early education. I detest them, because they teach children to fake fluent reading by memorising repetitive sentence stems and guessing the rest from pictures. This is a lot easier for adults to listen to, and if you believe reading should be fluent and easy from the start, it sounds like real reading.

If you went to a gym and they told you their weights were made of polystyrene because lifting real weights makes people sweat and grunt and isn’t pretty to watch, you’d walk straight out.

Predictable/repetitive texts are like fake weights at the gym. They make the exercise easier and less painful to watch, but they don’t build reading muscle.

Next time you’re watching a child slowly and laboriously sounding out words in a well-selected decodable book, cheer them on. Don’t wish it wasn’t hard or try to make it easier. All that sweating and striving is because they’re building their reading brain, which is such a powerful and wonderful thing to do, and well worth the effort.

22 thoughts on “The sweaty sounding-out stage builds reading muscle

  1. Louise Fitzpatrick Leach

    I would rather see them working hard towards a fundamental skill than watch them struggling to make sense through guessing and trying to remember.

    Reply
  2. Christine Sarandis

    Awesome post Alison, love the analogy! As a reading support teacher, persistence, patience and encouragement are my go to virtues that I model and share with students and their families.

    Reply
  3. Karey

    For me it wasn’t painful at all. When you understand the mental effort and development in this stage it is a thrill to watch. At some point it clicks and most of your work is done.

    Reply
  4. Bernardine Reid

    Thank you. This is such a timely comment for myself as a private literacy teacher and well worth sharing with some parents. For years I have used a reading programme (Lexia Core 5) which is on line and meets the criteria for the science of reading. I have been happy that children work with sounds and letters then words and phrases and sentences then paragraphs as part of the programme and then to real books with chapters and few pictures. During lockdown I retried decodable books. Invested in a selection from the Magic Belt series and was pleased with them, but surprised at how my student struggled. This was not something that I would inflict on already struggling parents in lockdown. “Read with your child so they keep up with the stories that their friends are reading and develop a love of books” They are paying me to teach reading and that takes time and expertise.

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  5. Fleur Aris

    I love this! I have shared your blog with my colleagues (teachers at a Language Development School). Your language could be precisely what one of our teachers needs to explain the progress of a student to an anxious or concerned parent (and let’s face it – this is most of our parents!). Thank you, once again, Allison, for your wisdom.

    Reply
  6. Lynette

    Children, when challenged appropriately, get so much confidence when they can do this, even if it looks and sounds laboured to adults. There is nothing more soul destroying for children learning to read than to struggle with predictable books and the dumb prompts given to help them guess.

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    1. Gwen

      Thanks for sharing. I will say that there is a period of reading development that predictable texts are quite appropriate. This would entail the period where children are approximating their understanding of concepts and print and learning the grapheme-phoneme connection.

      Reply
  7. Pingback: Do kids need to read decodable books to become fluent readers? - Phonic Books

  8. AJ

    I love this perspective. As an OT I look at this as a kind of “muscle memory” (this term really is a misnomer but for the purposes of understanding)…

    Imagine you learn to play Twinkle Twinkle little star” on the cello, by rote – a fine piece by Mozart perfect in its apparent simplicity (which coincidently is happily filled with rhymes) by rote. That’s great, however what happens when someone hands you the score for “Row Row Row your boat”?

    Are we going to continue to expect children to memorise or guess what the score says each time they need to play a new song, or are we going to teach them how to read the score so the can play any song at any time, even if there are some new chords.

    A few flat keys along the way never stopped Yo Yo Ma.

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  9. Susan

    Surely the piece of music learned ‘by rote’ is the muscle memory and relates to actual physical finger movements. The introduction of a new piece of music requires sight reading, a very different skill, or maybe listening which is a different skill again and nothing to do with muscle memory. I think the muscle-memory analogy of physical muscle building at the gym is a tad simplistic.

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      My post doesn’t mention music so maybe you’re responding to one of the comments without linking to it? It does mention the process by which decoding text strengthens neural links between the visual areas in the occipital lobe and the language areas in the parietal and temporal lobe. This is actually a physical process, with practice causing myelination which strengthens connections, see this article for more detail https://dana.org/article/inside-the-letterbox-how-literacy-transforms-the-human-brain. So it is analogous to exercise building muscle, though of course analogies are by their nature simplistic, but they are often helpful in developing schemata.

      Reply
  10. AJ

    I mentioned music! But I was referring to the ease of reading score as an analogy to reading “text”. Of course the physical component of motor planning with playing the piano thas to coordinate with the “reading” of the score and the auditory processing etc. When playing new music vs rote learned music where the cerebellum has a busy time and gives the cortices a bit of a break as less conscious effort required. However, reading written language aloud also uses motor planning in a similar manner (articulation and phonation use muscles, as well as a raft of other coordinating efforts, are involved). Such as a fascinating topic. 🙂

    Reply

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