Reading is a highly complex, integrated activity that daunts as many as 33 percent of the population. Many children become proficient readers regardless of how they are taught. However, for children who experience difficulty learning to gain meaning from print, reading must be systematically and carefully taught. Mastering the following components of the reading process is essential if students are to become proficient readers.
Appreciation and enthusiasm for reading
It comes as no surprise that children who are passionate about reading are more skillful readers. Reading is more exciting to students when they are:
Read to frequently
Allowed to choose their reading material
Exposed to a wide variety of interesting reading materials
Successful reading depends upon understanding that words are composed of individual sounds. Children need direct teaching in the skills of breaking words into their component sounds and in blending individual sounds together into words. Phonemic awareness is one of the most important skills upon which early reading depends. Children who have poorly developed phonemic awareness skills are at great risk for becoming poor readers.
Phonics and Decoding
Letters of the alphabet are a code representing the sounds in words. Reading involves “decoding” or translating written words into their spoken equivalents. The early stage of decoding instruction emphasizes the correspondence between individual letters or pairs of letters (such as “oa”) and the sounds they represent. Later reading instruction stresses rapid identification of larger units such as syllables. Identifying larger phonetic elements is termed structural analysis. Once a student learns the correspondence between sounds and print, he or she has become a proficient decoder.
Fluent, Automatic Reading of Text
However, in order to become an efficient reader, the decoding process must become fast and accurate. When decoding is efficient, attention and memory processes are available for comprehending what is being read. Reading fluency training is vital for strengthening a student’s comprehension skills. Children should have ample practice reading material that is not difficult for them to decode. This level is referred to as the “independent reading level.” Frequent reading of material at a child’s independent reading level builds automatic word recognition and frees up a child’s mental abilities for comprehension.
Comprehension depends heavily on a student’s knowledge of the world. Therefore, the skill of reading comprehension begins to develop long before children enter school. Children who have more experiences of all types, have more background knowledge upon which to base their understanding of written material. Parents help their child develop reading skills when they visit the museum, the park and even the store. Parents and teachers should also read to students in order to help them create a stockpile of information that will facilitate reading comprehension. The best reading instruction teaches a student to access background knowledge while reading.
Comprehension depends on having a large vocabulary. Children who read widely learn word meanings at a faster rate than children whose reading is more limited either in scope or quantity. During their school years, children should be learning several thousand new words per year. Most of these words are learned by reading.
Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. Effective reading instruction must include training in expressing one’s thoughts in writing. Children should be given daily practice in organizing and expressing their knowledge through writing. This builds their ability to decode and comprehend the thoughts of other writers.
The key to helping students who experience difficulty in learning to read is to identify a student’s specific reading problems and devise programs which capitalize upon a student’s unique learning strengths. A curriculum that focuses on specific, appropriate, and practical learning strategies will best help students become proficient, efficient and independent readers.
An appropriate literacy goal for all students should be that each is fully able to use reading as a springboard for independent, critical thought and expression. Reading fuels the highest levels of the thinking process. Good readers are armed with tools to become strong thinkers.
Dr. Kari Miller is a board certified educational therapist and director of Miller Educational Excellence, a full-service educational therapy facility in west Los Angeles.