Why is reading such a complex skill?

According to an April 2000 study (www.nationalreadingpanel.org) researched by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (a division of the National Institutes of Health) and the federal Department of Education, there are four main components to reading, each of which can be further divided.

Chart of 4 reading components

Click on the picture to enlarge it.

The first component is systematic phonics instruction.  The study defined phonics as how a letter corresponds to a sound in English, and defined systematic phonics as planned, sequential letter-sound instruction.  Some English letters have one corresponding sound (such as most consonants like b and d).  Some letters have two sounds (hard g and soft g, for example).  And some letters have many sounds (vowels and y).  Most systematic phonics instruction begins with teaching consistent consonant sounds and later moves on to vowels with multiple sounds, and then to consonants whose sounds change in combination with other letters (th and kn, for example).

Another component is phonemic awareness.  Phonemes are the smallest units of spoken English, 41 in all, represented by one or more of the 26 letters of the alphabet.  Some words have one phoneme (oh, for example, has the one phoneme o) while most words have two or more phonemes (go, for example, has two phonemes, g and o, while style has four phonemes, s, t, i and l.).  Putting together the phonemes to form words is an important component of reading.

Fluency is the third component.  The federal study defined fluency as reading aloud with speed, accuracy and proper expression.  When a child pauses at a comma or period and changes his pitch if he is reading a quote from a mean witch or a baby duck, that child is showing fluency.  Children who ignore punctuation or who read in a monotone or who plod along do not show fluency.

Reading comprehension, the fourth component, is perhaps the most complex.  It involves understanding vocabulary in the context of a text.  At the same time, reading comprehension means a student is actively engaging with a text so that the student can draw meaning.  If a child can read “trek” but does not know the word’s meaning, comprehension is limited by the lack of vocabulary but not by phonics or phenomes.  If a child can read a text but has little interest in the subject, and reads in a monotone, the child’s comprehension may be limited by fluency or passivity.

Adding to the complexity of reading is that all four of these skills work in unison as a child reads.  When a child is reading words accurately; when that child is grouping words in phrases and sentences with proper inflection; when that child is moving at a moderate rate; and when that child is laughing or questioning or pausing to consider what might happen next, that child is truly reading.

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