How Learning to Read Helps Shape a Child's Mind

Here at Calvert, our boys and girls gain a solid educational foundation that will support them through their studies and beyond — and for all students, that begins with a focus on reading. From learning sight words and phonics in Fifth and Sixth Ages to using in-depth research for their Eighth Grade Castalia projects, Calvert boys and girls develop new reading skills and practices at every stage of their academic journey, and these lessons not only stick with students as they grow — they have a direct effect on their young brains.
Research from sources such as the journal Brain suggests that reading aloud or silently creates and stimulates different synapses within the brain, essentially rewiring the way children think, and while experts disagree on some of the specifics, the act of reading is generally understood to improve executive function, increase empathy, foster imagination, and alter how the brain retains and interprets information.

For these reasons, Director of Academic Affairs Sarah Crowley says, Calvert teachers across all grade levels emphasize the value of reading in living a rich, rewarding life — and they have worked hard to implement the most effective methods for instructing their students.

“Research into reading is constantly ongoing, and so we are constantly trying to make sure that we, as educators, are up on the latest research surrounding reading instruction and reading acquisition,” Ms. Crowley said. “This doesn’t mean that reading instruction changes drastically on a whim, but rather we use valid research to reinforce our best practices, and to understand more fully all that we can about how children learn to read.”

Last year, the School adopted a new phonics program in Fifth Age, Units of Study in Phonics from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. The program balances students’ progress in reading against their grasp of phonics, and within each of our Lower School developmental groups, each student receives a level of phonics instruction that aligns with his or her needs. A guiding principle is that phonics instruction “benefits children when it supplements and does not replace reading and writing instruction.”

Because of its effectiveness in preparing this year’s Sixth Agers, the program has expanded to include Fifth through Eighth Ages, and Calvert’s dedication to challenging, robust reading curriculum doesn’t stop there. 

In 2019, Calvert teachers also read Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain to deepen their understanding of student development. In the book, Maryanne Wolf — a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and expert on childhood development — argues that reading is not a natural function of the human brain, but one that has developed over time. Because of this, she says, it requires extensive work to build this lifelong skill — a skill that many take for granted.

“In the evolution of our brain’s capacity to learn, the act of reading is not natural, with consequences both marvelous and tragic for many people, especially children,” Wolf writes.

As part of the School’s “the first teaching is the most important of all” philosophy, Calvert teachers employ multiple methods to guide students toward forming an early positive, well-rounded relationship with reading.

In the Lower School, teachers and parents are encouraged to support students at every reading level, regardless of whether the child prefers reading silently to themselves, listening to stories read aloud, or pursuing picture books and graphic novels. All of these activities, Ms. Crowley says, are considered reading because they require a level of cognitive engagement on the part of the child  in order to make sense of written information.

“It’s important for us to recognize what reading is as opposed to what it isn’t, and I think it is really important for families to celebrate the readers of all proficiencies that they have in their family,” Ms. Crowley said.

Under this approach, librarian Grace Zell and her colleagues in the Lower School prioritize time for all reading activities, many of which come with additional benefits. Books read aloud are often among the first to be checked out, Ms. Crowley says, and listening to a story as a group can foster feelings of community, which builds positive associations with reading. Learning to read is a lifelong process, and it starts with keeping children comfortable, engaged, and challenged.

Meanwhile, in the Middle School, students naturally build upon lessons learned in the Lower School as they begin reading more robust material, combining their solid reading skills with deeper comprehension and criticism. Starting around third or or fourth grade, or Ninth Age and Tenth Age at Calvert, Mrs. Crowley says, the boys and girls transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” wherein they apply reading comprehension skills to subjects like history and science. Suddenly, reading becomes a means of accessing new information.

“Every time we read something, it actually changes our brain. It creates a new neural pathway, and so one of the beautiful things about reading is that it literally opens our world,” Ms. Crowley said.

Throughout the Middle School years, students use their fine-tuned reading skills to analyze Shakespearean works, analyze bias and intent in documents, and dive deeper into the topics that interest them. The culmination of their Calvert journey, the Eighth Grade Castalia project, hinges on students being able to find, read, and interpret primary source documents and complete a capstone project on the subject of their choosing.

Spurred forward by their interest and desire to learn more, these Eighth Graders represent 10 years of specialized reading instruction, and their positive association inspires them to pursue one of Calvert’s ultimate goals for its students: a lifelong passion for learning.

“If we can make sure that we are combining skills acquisition with a love of reading, then we are accomplishing two things: We are helping our students gain confidence and independence as readers, and we are broadening the minds of our students, leaving them open to a full universe of learning.” Ms. Crowley said.

Calvert School is a coed independent lower and middle school.