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Learning to read

This article explains the mechanics of reading, how written letters are linked to sounds - often called 'decoding'.
Teacher pointing to a book with a student
© University of Reading

Linking written letters (graphemes) and letter sounds (phonemes) is often referred to as decoding. We can also think of decoding as the mechanics of reading: it’s not the final goal (which is comprehension) but it is how we get to the final goal. If we don’t know what the letters represent, then we don’t know which word is being spelled and then we can’t possibly know what the word means. In other words, mapping letters onto sounds is crucial for transforming the written word into the spoken word.

To do this in an alphabetic language such as English, Spanish or Malay, a child needs to do three things:

  1. Recognise the letters in the relevant alphabet (letter knowledge).
  2. Hear and blend the sounds in spoken language (phonological awareness).
  3. Map the letters or clusters of letters onto the sounds of spoken language.

Once a child has grasped all three, they have grasped the alphabetic principle: the understanding that there are systematic and predictable relationships between written letters and spoken sounds. This means they are ready to decode new words, even those they have never seen before1. For example, if a child wants to read the word cat, she has to know the letters c, a and t; she needs to know the sounds in the spoken form of the word cat (/k/, /æ/, /t/), and she needs to be able to map the letters to the sounds accurately and blend them together to read the word aloud.

However, this is not so straightforward in English. English has an opaque orthography (writing system), meaning that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds. So, knowing the mappings doesn’t always result in accurate word reading, unlike in languages with transparent orthographies such as Italian and Finnish. Consider words like pint and hint which should rhyme but don’t. Or words like yacht which would rhyme with thatched if we used letter-sound correspondences alone. Indeed, a study from 20032 showed that children in the UK lagged far behind children in all other European countries studied when asked to read aloud lists of words and nonsense words after one year of reading instruction. They attributed this poor performance not to the education system, nor the instructional approach, nor the age at which children begin formal schooling, but to the writing system itself – English is particularly hard to learn to read and children learning to read it progress more slowly than those learning more transparent orthographies.

Different orthographies

Of course, not all orthographies are alphabetic and orthographic depth is not the only challenge children face when learning to read. It’s beyond the scope of this brief article to go into the many types of orthography in detail, but we will briefly mention five types.

  • Logography, such as Chinese languages (where symbols represent entire words or morphemes)
  • Syllabary, such as Japanese kana (where symbols represent syllables)
  • Abjad, such Arabic (where the consonants but not the vowels are represented by symbols)
  • Alphabet, such as English (where symbols represent phonemes)
  • Abugida, such as Malayalam (partially alphabetic and partially syllable-based)

Different writing systems present different challenges. For example, in a logographic system, children must commit to memory around 2,000 logographs in order to acquire basic literacy3 and this takes many years. In abjads, words are ambiguous as each written word has more than one potential pronunciation (and meaning).

The challenges for reading

For multiliterate children in the UK (children who can or are learning to read in two or more languages), their reading and reading-related skills (in particular phonological awareness) in their first language may transfer to learning to read in English. For children whose first language is alphabetic, and especially those that use Latin script (eg, Spanish, Malay or Somali), this transfer is likely to be much easier. Indeed, phonological awareness in English was found to be better in bilinguals than monolinguals when the bilinguals’ first language was Spanish (an alphabetic orthography) but not Chinese (a logographic orthography)4. Transfer of phonological skills and decoding from first to second language has been studied in many combinations of languages5 and it’s clear that learning to read in one language when a child can already read in another, presents both benefits and challenges. It’s therefore important that educators are familiar with the different writing systems and know which applies in a child’s heritage language(s) so they’re aware of the issues it may present them when learning to read.


  1. Share, D. L. (1995). Phonological recoding and self-teaching: Sine qua non of reading acquisition. Cognition, 55(2), 151-218.
  2. Seymour, P. H., Aro, M., Erskine, J. M., & Collaboration with COST Action A8 Network. (2003). Foundation literacy acquisition in European orthographies. British Journal of Psychology, 94(2), 143-174.
  3. Perfetti, C. A., & Dunlap, S. (2008). Learning to read: General principles and writing system variations. In Learning to Read Across Languages (pp. 25-50). Routledge.
  4. Bialystok, E., Majumder, S., & Martin, M. M. (2003). Developing phonological awareness: Is there a bilingual advantage? Applied Psycholinguistics, 24(1), 27-44.
  5. Melby‐Lervåg, M., & Lervåg, A. (2011). Cross‐linguistic transfer of oral language, decoding, phonological awareness and reading comprehension: A meta‐analysis of the correlational evidence. Journal of Research in Reading, 34(1), 114-135.
© University of Reading
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