By Meghan Sebens
Reading is an integral part of our culture and has been for many millennia. While our social and academic lives are constantly infused with reading, this ability does not develop innately. The ability to read is shaped by the material we engage with, by our own internal processes, and most importantly, by the instruction we’re given.
When we tease apart the concept of reading, we’re left with five vastly expansive underlying components. Although these areas range from pre-literacy skills to deep understanding of complex texts, they do not necessarily fall on a sequential spectrum. In fact, solid instruction covers many of these areas within a single lesson.
Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate the sounds (phonemes) within a spoken word. While this component of reading does not actually involve written text, it is fundamental to the skill of decoding. Some students may not need direct instruction in order to develop phonemic awareness. However, if phonemic awareness is not intact, difficulty will persist until it is remediated.
Phonemic awareness instruction may consist of various wordplay activities. Can you show the number of sounds in gush (hint: it’s not four!)? Can you take out the /f/ sound in flip? Students build the ability to control sounds, and even syllables, within words. Without this capacity, phonics instruction will be incredibly challenging.
Phonics knowledge is the understanding that letters correspond to certain sounds. While in some languages, like Italian, a single spelling exists for each sound, in English, the 26 letters of the alphabet represent roughly 44 different sounds. Furthermore, English contains approximately 360 different combinations of letters to spell those sounds. The rules of phonics for English are more complex and varied than many alphabetic languages.
Teaching phonics is incredibly important, especially for students who do not naturally synthesize the many rules of the English language. A systematic approach toward phonics helps students recognize expected patterns in English from the very basic to the more complex. First, students must apply these rules to reading and spelling tasks in isolation. Once patterns are reinforced, they are ready for varied practice and application in context.
The skill of reading fluency spans from words to connected text. At the word level, fluent readers are able to read words with automaticity, or accurate and fast word recognition. Within connected text, students can accurately and efficiently string words together to form phrases and passages with ease. Fluent reading should sound natural, like a conversation. Appropriate (not fast) pacing, accurate word recognition, and phrasing and expression that demonstrate an understanding of the text are all subgoals within fluent reading.
Each individual student may need a different focus for instruction. Activities that build rate include repeated readings, listening to model readings, and chunking text into phrases. Accuracy can be addressed through error handling, word analysis and automaticity drills, and decoding practice. A student can increase prosody (phrasing and expression) with phrase-cued text, poetry, and reader’s theater. While one student may need to use repeated readings to establish appropriate pace, this may be counterproductive to students who approach reading too quickly. Relevant instruction and building self-awareness are important factors in addressing fluent reading.
Vocabulary is the understanding of word meanings. Although text is not the only place that children gain vocabulary, explicit instruction in vocabulary leads to consistent gains in reading.
Teaching vocabulary can be accomplished by constructing word meanings and other associated information (e.g., synonyms, antonyms, examples), training students to use context clues, as well as familiarizing them with the morphological structure of words (prefixes, roots, suffixes). It is important to take into account the frequency and usefulness of terms selected for study. Words that cross a variety of domains (i.e., different classes or situations) can be practiced more and provide a higher benefit for the student’s knowledge base. Categorization helps students to connect like vocabulary terms and organize information more efficiently.
Comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading. It may begin with recall of stated facts from the text but generally stems far beyond this simplistic notion. Students should be able to engage with the text in order to draw inferences beyond the stated material, connect novel situations to their own lives or other readings, analyze broader themes, and more.
In order to accomplish this, students need to be taught to independently use strategies that allow them to attack written material at a deeper level. Summarizing, visualizing, and questioning are just a few strategies that teachers may incorporate into comprehension instruction. Students must learn to identify comprehension gaps and use a variety of tools to reconstruct the author’s intended meanings.
Some readers make the necessary connections from speech sounds to symbols almost imperceptibly, learning to manipulate phonemes, recognize words and phrases, acquire vocabulary, and extract meaning from passages with ease. For others, the sub-skills of fluent reading must be identified and explicitly taught. The degree of intervention and the recipe for effective instruction can be as individualized as the human brain, but research has shown that the five areas above, in combination with principles of effective teaching, are essential keys to reading proficiency.
For further information on the five components of reading and instructional strategies, I encourage you to review the National Reading Panel Report – Practical Advice for Teachers.
Meghan Sebens, M.S.Ed., is the reading supervisor, the testing coordinator, and an academic advisor at Landmark’s Elementary•Middle School.