How do students learn to read?

We all want children to be able to read well so they can read all kinds of texts for understanding. How does this happen? What are the basic moving parts that describe how students learn to read with comprehension? Let’s look at decoding, language comprehension, fluency, and reading comprehension.

The simple view of reading

The National Reading Panel framed reading instruction as encompassing five areas: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension. These fall under the broader categories of word-decoding skills and language-comprehension skills. Decoding and language comprehension come together as students learn to read fluently and with comprehension.

The National Reading Panel based its framework on the simple view of reading, which posits that reading with comprehension (RC) is essentially the product of decoding (D) proficiency and language comprehension (LC), summarized in the formula RC = D x LC.

The multiplication in that formula is important because it means that any insufficiency in either decoding or language comprehension will suppress a student’s overall reading comprehension. Imagine a student is at full power in decoding—100%, or 1.0—but is only at half power in language comprehension. The product of the two numbers is 50%, or 0.5. The simple view of reading asserts that we cannot make up for a weakness in one factor just by strengthening the other.

Decoding

Decoding is the task of turning sets of letters on the page into the sounds they represent. Ultimately, decoding involves bringing sounds and graphic representations together. Before this can happen, students need to be able to hear and distinguish sound, and they need to be able to identify letters.

On the sound side, decoding involves working with the spoken word and noticing syllables, rhyming, and individual sounds, or phonemes. Phonological awareness is about a student’s ability to work with sounds.

On the graphic representations side, the decoding process begins with learning letters and continues with learning sets of common letter patterns. Systematic instruction in connecting these letter patterns to sounds in words is referred to as phonics. As students learn to decode words on the page, they grow more sophisticated at relating letter patterns to sounds. Gradually, word decoding becomes more and more automatic.

Decoding ability is necessary for reading, but on its own, decoding is insufficient for learning to read with comprehension. Students may decode words on the page without understanding what they read.

Language comprehension

Imagine a teacher or parent reading to a child and the child listening and taking in meaning. It is feasible for students to understand what is read aloud while still being unable to decode it on their own. This process is language comprehension. In the simple view, the two must come together: the ability to decode and the ability to make meaning of the language we “hear” when we decode.

Language comprehension rests not just on knowing a wide body of word meanings and idioms but also on understanding the structure of sentences and beyond; our understanding of grammar lets us know how to relate words’ meanings. Students need strong listening comprehension to foster good reading comprehension in later years. When a student needs to improve language comprehension but doesn’t receive support or instruction in that area, future reading comprehension is likely to be more challenged.

Fluency

As students gain skills in reading words, they begin to work with connected text—that is, sentences and passages. As they tackle passages, they show increases in their rate, accuracy, and expression in reading aloud. Together, these three factors make up reading fluency. Students who read aloud more fluently have more automatic word recognition, so they struggle less with sounding out each word. This frees up mental space for attending to the meaning of those words.

When students start to string together phrases and sentences from the page, they typically draw from their own language proficiency in figuring out which words make sense. This process is the beginning of pulling decoding (D) and language comprehension (LC) together. The simple view of reading says that when these two factors come together adequately, reading comprehension can occur. This model explains an important research finding: in the primary grades, students’ reading fluency strongly predicts their reading comprehension.

Reading comprehension

As students start to string together phrases and sentences from the page, they typically draw from their own language proficiency in figuring out which words make sense. This process is the beginning of pulling decoding (D) and language comprehension (LC) together. The simple view of reading says that when these two factors come together adequately, reading comprehension can occur.

When students read a text on their own and make meaning from it, they demonstrate reading comprehension. Fluent reading with good expression, accuracy, and pace suggests some understanding, but reading comprehension is a robust concept that goes well beyond literal comprehension. State standards typically call out skills in understanding relationships between ideas, inference-making, and author’s purpose and craft. In the primary grades, comprehension is an area of instructional focus even before students can read independently and fluently enough to support solid reading comprehension. Skills in comprehending books and other texts develop even as students rely on others to read to them aloud smoothly.

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