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Reading Basics

Reading 101 for Parents: Reading Basics

What is reading? And what are the core skills that young children need to become successful readers? Learning to read is complex, but this overview can help explain key terms and demystify the process.

What is reading?

It’s not an easy thing, learning to read. Our brains are naturally wired to speak, but they are not naturally wired to read and write. We need to be taught how to read. Most children learn to read at about age 5 or 6 and continue developing more sophisticated language and comprehension skills throughout their schooling.

Reading is making meaning from print. It requires that we do these three things, all at the same time:

  • Identify the words in print — a process called decoding and word recognition
  • Construct an understanding from words in print — a process called comprehension
  • Coordinate identifying words and making meaning so that reading is automatic and accurate — an achievement called fluency

Reading in its fullest sense involves weaving together word recognition and comprehension in a fluent manner. These three processes are complex, and each is important. How complex? Let’s find out …

To develop word recognition, children need to learn:

  • How to break apart and manipulate the sounds in words — this is phonemic awareness. 
    Example: feet has three sounds: /f/, /e/, and /t/
  • Certain letters are used to represent certain sounds — this is the alphabetic principle. 
    Example: s and h make the /sh/ sound
  • How to apply their knowledge of letter-sound relationships to sound out words that are new to them – this is decoding. 
    Example: ssssspppoooon — spoon!
  • How to analyze words and spelling patterns in order to become more efficient at reading words — this is word study. 
    Example: Bookworm has two words I know: book and worm.
  • To expand the number of words they can identify automatically, called their sight vocabulary
    Example: Oh, I know that word — the!

To develop comprehension, children need to develop:

  • Background knowledge about many topics. 
    Example: “This book is about zoos — that’s where lots of animals live.”
  • Extensive oral and print vocabularies. 
    Example: “Look at my trucks — I have a tractor, and a fire engine, and a bulldozer.”
  • Understanding how the English language works. 
    Example: “We say she ate her dinner, not she ated her dinner.”
  • Understanding how print works. 
    Example: “Reading in English goes from left to right.”
  • Knowledge of various kinds of texts. 
    Example: “I bet they live happily ever after.”
  • Various purposes for reading. 
    Example: “I want to know what ladybugs eat.”
  • Strategies for making meaning from text, and for problem solving when meaning breaks down. 
    Example: “This isn’t making sense. Let me go back and reread it.”

Stages of reading development

Learn about the four stages of reading development that children move through as they progress from emergent to fluent readers.

To develop fluency, children need to:

  • Develop a high level of accuracy in word recognition
  • Maintain a rate of reading brisk enough to support comprehension
  • Use phrasing and expression so that oral reading sounds like speech
  • Transform deliberate strategies for word recognition and comprehension into automatic skills

Reading motivation matters, too

If reading isn’t pleasurable or fulfilling, children won’t choose to read, and they won’t get the practice they need to become fluent readers.

So reading also means developing and maintaining the motivation to read. To do that, children need to:

  • Appreciate the pleasures of reading.
  • View reading as a social act, to be shared with others.
  • See reading as an opportunity to explore their interests.
  • Read widely for a variety of purposes, from enjoyment to gathering information.
  • Become comfortable with a variety of different written forms and genres.

Here are some honest and smart tips from kids on reading motivation: What Parents Can Do: Reading Tips from Kids

So … what is reading?

Learning to read is complex. Children don’t learn one reading-related skill and then move on to the next in a step-by-step process. Instead, they must develop competency in four areas at the same time: word identification, comprehension, fluency, and motivation.

That’s quite an achievement for a six year old!

Scarborough’s Reading Rope

This research-based model shows how word recognition and language comprehension work together in learning to read. Watching the video to learn more about Scarborough’s Reading Rope and all the ways you can help children build and strengthen their early literacy skills.

How can I encourage reading when it’s hard for my child?

Literacy expert Kegi Wells shares different strategies to help children become stronger and more engaged readers. From our video series Reading SOS: Expert Answers to Family Questions About Reading.

More resources on reading