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.
This project was developed in partnership with the National Education Association and Colorín Colorado.
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Raising a reader
Take a look at this article, 10 Things You Can Do to Raise a Reader for a quick overview.
To discover simple ways help your child build literacy skills at home, click on your child's grade level in the links on the left.
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
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.
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!
In the sections below, you'll learn more about six key areas of reading.
Print awareness: understanding what print is and the parts of a book
Print awareness is the understanding that print carries meaning and that in English it reads from left to right. It also means learning that books contain letters and words, have front and back covers, and are handled in a certain way.
Print awareness (also called "concepts of print") is a child's earliest introduction to literacy. Children with print awareness understand that print carries meaning and has different functions depending on the context in which it appears — for example, menus list food choices, a book tells a story, a sign can identify a favorite restaurant or warn of danger.
Most children become aware of print long before they enter school. They see print all around them, on signs and billboards, in alphabet books and story books, and in labels, magazines, and newspapers. Seeing print and observing adults' reactions to print helps children recognize its various forms.
The ability to understand how print works does not emerge magically and unaided. This understanding comes about through the active intervention of adults and other children who point out letters, words, and other features of the print that surrounds children.
When children are read to regularly, when they play with letters and engage in word games, and later, when they receive formal reading instruction, they begin to understand how the system of print functions; that is, print on a page is read from left to right and from top to bottom; that sentences start with capital letters and end with periods, and much, much more.
As they participate in interactive reading with adults, children also learn about the features of a book — such as author and illustrator names, book title, and page numbers. They also learn about book handling — including how to turn pages, how to find the top and bottom of a page, how to identify the front and back cover of a book.
As part of this learning, they begin to develop the very important concept of a "word" — that meaning is conveyed through words; that printed words are separated by spaces; and that some words in print look longer (because they have more letters) than other words.
Phonological and phonemic awareness: recognizing the sounds in spoken words
Phonological and phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and play with the sounds in spoken language — including rhymes, syllables, and the smallest units of sound (phonemes).
Phonological and phonemic awareness is about the sounds in spoken words and a child's understanding that spoken words are made up of sounds. While phonics focuses on teaching sound-spelling relationships and is associated with print, phonological awareness tasks are oral.
Phonological awareness is made up of a group of skills. Examples include being able to identify words that rhyme, counting the number of syllables in a name, recognizing alliteration, segmenting a sentence into words, and identifying the syllables in a word. The most sophisticated — and last to develop — is called phonemic awareness.
Phonemic awareness is the ability to notice, think about, and work with the individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. Manipulating the sounds in words includes blending, stretching, or otherwise changing words. Children can demonstrate phonemic awareness in several ways, including:
- Recognizing which words in a set of words begin with the same sound.
("Bell, bike, and boy all have /b/ at the beginning.")
- Identifying and saying the first or last sound in a word.
("The beginning sound of dog is /d/." "The ending sound of sit is /t/.")
- Combining (blending) the separate sounds in a word to say the whole word.
("/m/, /a/, /p/ – map.")
- Breaking (segmenting) a word into its separate sounds.
("up – /u/, /p/.")
Changing a sound to make a new word
("Change the /t/ for /m/ – top becomes mop")
Children who cannot hear and work with the phonemes of spoken words will have a difficult time learning how to relate these phonemes to letters when they see them in written words.
What is phonological awareness?
This video was produced by Understood.
Phonics and decoding: connecting the sounds of speech with letters
Phonics is a step-by-step way to teach the alphabetic principle — the idea that letters represent the sounds of spoken language — and that there is a predictable relationship between letters and sounds. "Decoding" is the act of sounding out words using phonics.
The goal of phonics instruction is to help children learn the alphabetic principle — the idea that letters represent the sounds of spoken language — and that there is an organized, logical, and predictable relationship between written letters and spoken sounds.
Learning that there are predictable relationships between sounds and letters allows children to apply these relationships to both familiar and unfamiliar words, and to begin to read with fluency.
Children are taught, for example, that the letter n represents the sound /n/, and that it is the first letter in words such as nose, nice and new. When children understand sound–letter correspondence, they are able to sound out and read (decode) new words.
Learning how the 26 letters in our written alphabet are used to represent the roughly 44 sounds in our spoken language allows children to unlock the code of our written language!
Phonics instruction should be:
- Systematic: the letter-sound relationship is taught in an organized and logical sequence.
- Explicit: there are precise, detailed directions for teaching letter-sound relationships.
- Every day: provides frequent opportunities for children to apply what they are learning about letters and sounds to the reading of words, sentences, and stories.
Fluency: reading with accuracy and expression
Fluency is a child's ability to read a book or other text with accuracy, at a reasonable rate, and with appropriate expression. Reading fluency is important because it provides a bridge between word recognition and comprehension.
When kids can read fluently, it's easier for them to understand what they're reading. And they read aloud easily and with expression — this makes reading a lot more enjoyable!
Less fluent readers read more slowly and word by word. They must focus their attention on figuring out the words, leaving them little attention for understanding the meaning of text. Comprehension and motivation to read can suffer. Of course, beginning readers aren't fluent yet, but by the end of first grade, kids should be reading books at their grade level with ease and expression.
Fluency develops gradually over time and through practice. At the earliest stage of reading development, students' oral reading is slow and labored because students are just learning to "break the code" – to attach sounds to letters and to blend letter sounds into recognizable words.
When fluent readers read silently, they recognize words automatically. They group words quickly to help them gain meaning from what they read. Fluent readers read aloud effortlessly and with expression. Their reading sounds natural, as if they are speaking.
Because fluent readers do not have to concentrate on decoding the words, they can focus their attention on what the text means. They can make connections among the ideas in the text and their background knowledge. In other words, fluent readers recognize words and comprehend at the same time.
Vocabulary: knowing what each word means
Vocabulary is word knowledge. Word learning is an ongoing process — we are always adding to our "word bank." The goal is to recognize and understand the meaning of spoken and written words.
Vocabulary plays a key role in the reading process and is critical to reading comprehension. Children learn the meanings of most words indirectly, through everyday experiences with oral and written language. Other words are learned through carefully designed instruction.
Vocabulary refers to the words we must understand to communicate effectively. We can identify four types of vocabulary:
- Listening vocabulary: the words we need to know to understand what we hear.
- Speaking vocabulary: the words we use when we speak.
- Reading vocabulary: the words we need to know to understand what we read.
- Writing vocabulary: the words we use in writing.
Beginning readers must use the words they hear orally to make sense of the words they see in print. Kids who hear more words spoken at home learn more words and enter school with better vocabularies. This larger vocabulary pays off exponentially as a child progresses through school.
Consider, for example, what happens when a beginning reader comes to the word dig in a book. As she begins to figure out the sounds represented by the letters d, i, g, the reader recognizes that the sounds make up a very familiar word that she has heard and said many times. It is harder for a beginning reader to figure out words that are not already part of their speaking (oral) vocabulary.
As children learn to read more advanced texts, they must learn the meaning of new words that are not part of their oral vocabulary.
While most vocabulary is learned indirectly, some vocabulary must be taught directly by: (1) providing kids with instruction in specific words that are important to understanding a particular text; and (2) teaching kids more general word-learning strategies that they can apply to a variety of words, such as analyzing parts of words (e.g., root words).
Comprehension: understanding what you read
Comprehension is the goal of reading! It is the thinking process readers use to understand what they read. Strong vocabulary, background knowledge, and an understanding of how language works are keys to comprehension.
Comprehension is the reason for reading. If readers can read the words but do not understand or connect to what they are reading, they are not really reading. Good readers are both purposeful and active, and have the skills to absorb what they read, analyze it, make sense of it, and make it their own.
Strong readers think actively as they read. They use their experiences and knowledge of the world, vocabulary, language structure, and reading strategies to make sense of the text and know how to get the most out of it. They know when they have problems with understanding and what thinking strategies to use to resolve these problems when they pop up.
Teachers can play a critical role in helping students develop their comprehension skills. Reading research has shown that comprehension instruction can help students do a better job of understanding and remembering what they read. Good instruction can also help students communicate with others, verbally and in writing, about what they’ve read.
What good readers do
Draw on prior knowledge. Good readers draw on prior knowledge and experience to help them understand what they are reading.
Draw inferences. In addition to understanding the literal points that the author is making, good readers are able to “read between the lines” and draw inferences about a wide range of hidden meanings, such as why events are unfolding as they do, why characters behave in a certain way, what the characters are thinking, and what might happen next.
Self-monitor. During reading, good readers learn to monitor their understanding, adjust their reading speed to fit the difficulty of the text, and address any comprehension problems they have. After reading, they check their understanding of what they have read. Students who are good at monitoring their comprehension know when they understand what they’re reading and when they don’t.
Form mental images. Good readers often form mental pictures, or images, as they read. Readers (especially younger readers) who picture the story during reading understand and remember what they read better than readers who do not create a picture in their mind.
Summarize and retell. Summarizing requires students to determine what is important in the text and then put it into their own words by retelling, verbally or in writing. Instruction in summarizing can help students become more purposeful as they read and more skillful in comprehending. Summarizing can help students to:
- Identify main ideas orally or in writing.
- Connect the main or central ideas orally or in writing.
- Learn to weed out unnecessary information.
- Remember what they have read.