How Children Go From Reading Aloud To Reading Silently

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Scientists who study how children learn to read know a lot about the early stages, when children are reading aloud. They know much less about the next step, silent reading, for the obvious reason that it’s much harder to tell what’s going on in children’s minds when they’re not producing sounds that can be heard and analyzed.

Researchers at the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR) at Florida State University are now focusing in on the relationship between oral and silent reading, and how those skills, in turn, relate to reading comprehension:

“‘One of the reasons why silent reading has not been paid attention to sufficiently is that it is difficult to measure,’ says FCRR researcher Young-Suk Kim. ‘The other piece is, people may just assume that, if you read well orally, then you’ll also read well silently.’

However, studies show that’s not the case for all students, said Kim. Some may pretend to read, read inefficiently, or struggle over the bridge from oral to silent reading.”

Even for children with strong literacy skills, the transition to rapid silent reading is not easy:

“‘Initially, kids sound out each letter, then put all the sounds together, and then make a word,’ explains Kim, a former classroom teacher. ‘As their reading develops further, they will be able to do that in their minds. But initially, it’s not going to be as efficient or fast.’

Beginning silent readers often sound words out in their heads, a cumbersome process called subvocalization. ‘What we ultimately want is instantaneous recognition without subvocalization because that’s faster,’ Kim said. ‘But we don’t know how that process happens.’

Until recently, measuring silent reading was difficult: After all, you can’t hear the child’s progress. But researchers can now see this progress, with the help of advanced eye-tracking technologies that follow students’ eye movements as they read text on a computer screen.

‘It’s fascinating how precisely we can measure this,’ Kim said. ‘We can even determine exactly which letter a student is focusing on.’

The ultimate goal is to help students read faster and better, a skill critical to their success throughout their years in school. ‘Because children read faster in silent mode, we want to really promote that,’ Kim said.” (Read more here.)

It’s so interesting how all these internal processes, like silent reading, are now yielding to scientific investigation—through the use of eye-tracking technology, as in this work, and through brain-scanning techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging. For so long the brain was a “black box,” and only now are we getting a peek inside.

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