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About Reading

What Is Reading?

Reading is a multifaceted process involving word recognition, comprehension, fluency, and motivation. Learn how readers integrate these facets to make meaning from print.

Reading is making meaning from print. It requires that we do the following:

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

Sometimes you can make meaning from print without being able to identify all the words. Remember the last time you got a note in messy handwriting? You may have understood it, even though you couldn’t decipher all the scribbles.

Sometimes you can identify words without being able to construct much meaning from them. Read the opening lines of Lewis Carroll’s poem, “Jabberwocky,” and you’ll see what I mean.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Finally, sometimes you can identify words and comprehend them, but if the processes don’t come together smoothly, reading will still be a labored process. For example, try reading the following sentence:

It          isn’t          as         if          the          words
     are        difficult                   to          identify          or
understand,                   but          the          spaces
                   make                   you          pause                   between
    words,                    which                   means        your
                   reading                   is                    less                    fluent.

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? Here goes?

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.
  • Understandings about how the English language works
    example: We say she went home, not she goed home.
  • Understandings about how print works
    example: reading 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 constructing meaning from text, and for problem solving when meaning breaks down
    example: This isn’t making sense. Let me go back and reread it.

To develop fluency, children need to:

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

But 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.

Therefore, reading also means developing and maintaining the motivation to read. Reading is an active process of constructing meaning. The key word here is active.

To develop and maintain the motivation to read, 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

So … what is reading?

Reading is the motivated and fluent coordination of word recognition and comprehension.

Quite an achievement for a six year old!


Leipzig, D. H. (January, 2001). What is reading? WETA.

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