Cognitive Elements of Reading
begin by picturing a child reading a book silently to herself. She's
just sitting there, fairly motionless, staring at a book. Occasionally,
she turns a page. Sometimes she laughs quietly to herself for no
apparent reason. It is a serene and beautiful picture, but only
because we know that inside her head, she is exploring a story and
listening to the author tell a tale through a voice that only she
can hear. If she was sitting motionless, occasionally laughing to
herself while staring intently at a potted plant, it would be somewhat
disturbing, but because she is acting this way with a book in her
hands, it's a Kodak moment.
The silent, motionless act of reading belies the activity happening
inside the reader's head. The symbols on the page are being converted
into a meaningful message that the reader understandsa message
constructed by an author that she has probably never met. In the
readers head, the author's tale is unfolding word-for-word
exactly as the author wrote it, but the reader scarcely moves a
As the reader sits motionless, she is simultaneously decoding
the text and comprehending the message contained within the text.
That is what reading is all aboutdecoding and comprehension.
The integration of these two skills is essential to reading, and
neither one is more or less essential than the other. If somebody
was kind enough to read the story out loud to her, she would not
need to decode it herself. She could sit with her eyes closed, listen
to somebody else tell the story, and just focus on comprehending
it. The comprehension she experiences listening to somebody else
read aloud is the same comprehension she would experience reading
the text silently to herself. There are subtle differences, but
essentially, the only thing that makes reading different from listening
is the act of decoding the text.
If reading is the product of two cognitive elements (language
comprehension and decoding), two questions must be addressed:
- What is required to be good at understanding language?
- What is necessary to be good at decoding text?
Examining each of these elements, we find a collection of interrelated
cognitive elements that must be well developed to be successful
at either comprehending language or decoding. This text will examine
both language comprehension and decoding, along with the subordinate
cognitive elements that underlie each. All of these underlying knowledge
domains will be described as discrete and distinct cognitive elements,
but only for the benefit of this examination. It is important for
reading teachers to understand what these elements are and how they
fit in the "big picture" of reading acquisition, but it is also
important for teachers to understand that these elements are all
interdependent and interrelated in a childs head.
Let us begin this examination of the cognitive processes involved
in reading acquisition where the child begins with Language
comprehension generally refers to one's ability to understand speech
(there are other forms of language, but for the sake of the current
conversation, we will only consider speech). It is important to
remember that language is not at all generic. There are different
"levels" of language. Adults do not speak to children
the way they speak to other adults; stories for adults are aimed
at a "higher level" than stories for children.
Further, there are different types of language. Language can
be informal, as it often is in routine discourse among friends and
family, or it can be formal, as it often is in classroom environments.
Informal language for young children is usually very context dependent;
the conversation typically focuses on information that is immediately
relevant and often concrete. Formal language, on the other hand,
is often decontextualized and abstract (e.g., asking a child to
retell a story or to consider the perspective of a character in
a story). Some children have more experience with formal language
than others, and naturally, this gives them an advantage in formal
classroom learning environments.
It is also worth noting that there are different types and levels
of language comprehension. The most mundane form is explicit comprehensionthe
listener merely understands what is explicitly stated. The listener
may not draw any inferences or elaborate on what is said, but at
least the listener understands what is specifically stated.
A more elaborate form of language comprehension builds inferential
understanding on top of explicit comprehension. Sometimes, in order
to truly understand language, the listener must consider the context
in which communication is taking place. Sometimes, one needs to
"read between the lines" and draw inferences. Sometimes, these inferences
are context dependent, meaning that it is necessary to consider
the speaker and the audience. Consider the following statements
out of context: "My car broke down the other day, and its
going to cost $2000 to fix! This couldnt have come at a worse
time, either. Bob Junior needs braces, and Mary hasnt been
able to work very many hours recently."
Out of context, this person seems only to be seeking sympathy.
However, what would you think about these statements if you knew
that this person was speaking to his boss? He never says it explicitly,
but it is obvious that he is asking for a raise. In real communication,
sometimes the true message is never explicitly statedthe listener
must deduce the speakers intent behind the message.
For language to work, it is assumed that both the speaker and the
listener are cooperating in their communication: The speaker is
attempting to convey only the information that is relevant and interesting
for the listener; the listener is trying to ascertain the important
and relevant message that the speaker is conveying.
The context, the nature of the discourse, the speakers underlying
intent these and many other factors are important to comprehension.
Often, what is not said is as important to the communication as
what is said. Consider these quotes taken from actual performance
evaluations used by the military to determine qualifications for
- "He is inquisitive, and his wife is charming."
- "I am quite confident that he has many admirable
- "His performance under my command has never
once dropped below average."
Are there hidden messages in these evaluations? None of these evaluations
are particularly negative or derogatory, but the very fact that
they are not laudatory speaks volumes. In these evaluations,
the speaker is trying not to explicitly say something, and hopefully,
the listener will hear what the speaker is trying so hard not to
More than just an appreciation for the social context of communication
and the ability to draw inferences, language comprehension involves
a general awareness that the purpose of communication is to coherently
convey information. Children need to develop an understanding of
different genres, voices, perspectives, and styles. Children also
need to understand how those elements may reflect the intent of
the speaker, author, or storyteller, and how those elements affect
the underlying meaning of communication. Young children typically
do not have a well-developed appreciation of the pragmatics of speech,
and teachers must often draw their attention to these comprehension
It is also relevant to note that, particularly in the Southwest
United States, sometimes there are cross-language issues related
to language comprehension. A childs native language may be
Spanish, and she may have high levels of understanding in Spanish,
but if she is in a classroom in the United States, her language
comprehension is most likely being assessed in English.
Language comprehension in this context, then, refers to the childs
ability to understand and draw inferences from speech that is in
a language the child understands, and that is at a level the child
should be able to understand. If a child is expected to read English
text, the child must understand spoken English adequately. If the
child does not speak English, the text will be more meaningful if
it is written in the language the child does speak and at a level
The importance of connecting the child's spoken language to the
text is paramount, but it is frequently overlooked when assessing
the reading instruction needs of children. This is not just a concern
when addressing the needs of students who are learning English as
a second language, or addressing the needs of children who speak
a non-standard dialect of English. This is a concern that every
reading teacher of every child should be aware of. Some childrenEnglish
speaking childrengrow up in an impoverished linguistic environment.
Despite the fact that English is their native language, their language
comprehension skills are underdeveloped. Furthermore, explicit instruction
aimed at developing linguistic comprehension usually takes a back
seat to explicit instruction of text-awareness or decoding skills
in the classroom. The balance is important, and reading teachers
need to consciously maintain that balance.
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second important element underlying reading comprehension is decoding,
which generically refers to the childs ability to recognize
and process written information. While that may sound straightforward,
it should be noted that children may try many different, often inappropriate
decoding strategies before they become skilled decoders.
Initially, children learn that certain symbols "stand for"
concepts, but these symbols are highly contextualized. For example,
many children recognize the golden arches of McDonalds restaurantsthese
children recognize that the golden arches represent a concept, which,
in this case is food that they would like to eat. This is sometimes
called "environmental print reading," and, although it
signals that the child is on the road to literacy, it is not the
same as "decoding." In this case, the symbols and words
the child recognizes depend upon their context for recognition.
The child may recognize the word "milk" when it is written
on the milk carton, but does not recognize that same word when it
is in a storybook. Similarly, a child may recognize the word, "McDonalds"
when it is accompanied by the golden arches, but may be unable to
recognize it out of that context.
Farther along the road to decoding, children typically develop
the ability to recognize certain high-frequency and familiar words.
This is sometimes called "sight-word reading." It involves
the child memorizing the shape of each whole word, or some unique
feature in each word, and recognizing it when it comes up in print.
This approach works only for a very short timechildren can
only memorize so many words, and as their "sight vocabulary" grows,
their capacity for learning new words diminishes. They tend to confuse
words and forget words. Sight-word readers are limited to the words
that they have memorizedthey can not make sense of unfamiliar
words, and can not read text that is comprised of words outside
of their sight vocabulary.
As emergent readers become more advanced, they learn how to use
the conventions of written English to "sound out" or "decipher"
words. This approach is generative, which means there is no limit
to the number of words that can be created or read by those with
this ability. Consequently, young readers who can decipher words
can make sense of words they have never encountered before in print.
Unfortunately, in English, there is more to decoding than using
the conventions of written English to decipher words. In English,
virtually every spelling-sound convention has exceptionsEnglish
would make more sense if "one" sounded like "own"
and if "too" did not sound like "two," but in
English, there are a host of words whose correct pronunciations
violate the conventions of English spelling-sound relationships
in some way. To become an expert decoder, a child needs to learn
to decipher words, but further, the child needs to begin learning
how to correctly identify irregular or exception words.
It is important to note that learning irregular words is a process
that develops throughout a reader's life. Even adult readers come
across new words that are not pronounced the way they are spelled.
(How do you pronounce "calliope"?) However, it is reasonable to
say that readers are decoding text appropriately if they are correctly
recognizing irregular or exception words within their vocabulary
and pronouncing unfamiliar words in a way consistent with the conventions
of written English.
The elements that support language comprehension and decoding
We have described reading comprehension as the product of decoding
skills and language comprehension skillsboth of which depend
upon more fundamental cognitive elements. Each of these elements
is worth examining in some detail.
Language comprehension and the cognitive elements that support
Children learn their native language relatively easilythey
do not need much in the way of explicit instruction to learn basic
communication skills. Unless they are severely deprived of opportunities
to experience their language, almost all children develop those
functional communication skills long before they enter school. This
process of language acquisition starts very earlyin fact,
there is evidence that children begin learning about certain aspects
of language while still in the womb. After they are born, children
naturally practice and experiment very actively with language.
Despite childrens natural tendencies to actively learn their
native language, language skill instruction should not be neglected
in the classroom. Some children need to be taught some aspects of
language formally and explicitly. Children may need little formal
instruction to be able to communicate basic needs, but for academic
success in a formal learning environment, children need to be versed
in certain aspects of formal language, decontextualized language,
and metalinguistic knowledge.
It is rare to find children whose language experiences are so impoverished
that their language development is inadequate for basic communication,
but it is not uncommon to find children who are not prepared to
deal with the formal, decontextualized language used in classrooms.
Some children are raised in homes where more formal, decontextualized
language is common, and their early experiences with formal language
prepare them for the more formal learning environment of a classroom.
However, other children do not benefit from such rich and diverse
language experience. While their language experience is typically
adequate for basic expression and typical discourse, they are at
a disadvantage when trying to function in academic settings.
Teachers should make no assumptions about their students
language comprehension skills. They should know that the children
in their classes do not necessarily come from similar linguistic
environments and may not have approximately equal language development.
Every childs language skills need to be assessed, and areas
of need should be addressed.
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have strong language comprehension skills, children must know about
the world in which they live, and must have elaborate background
knowledge that is relevant to what they are trying to understand.
This knowledge is more sophisticated than mere facts or word definitionsit
is a reference base for personal experiences, scripts, and schemas
that help those children understand how the world works.
To really understand and appreciate a story, children need to know
more than the definitions of words in the story; they need to have
a frame of reference so they can make sense of the plot.
Children learn by comparing new information against information
they already have in their headsand that information must
be relevant to the story they are listening to. "Casey at the
bat," for instance, makes more sense to people who are familiar
with baseball, and teaching children about baseball will help them
to appreciate "Casey at the bat." This point seems trivially
obvious, but the issue is raised here to emphasize a non-trivial
pointnot all children have the same background knowledge.
Children can not understand what is being said to them if they do
not share some background knowledge with the speaker. Likewise,
they cannot understand a story if they do not have some background
knowledge related to the topic of the story.
Similarly, children depend on life experiences to develop schemas
and scripts about how the world should work. Certain events are
more likely to happen at a baseball game than at a restaurant, and
events typically take place in a certain order or sequence. We depend
on our internal schemas and scripts to help us organize and anticipate
events in a story.
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are composed of sounds that are assembled to form words, which are
combined to form sentences, which are arranged to convey ideas.
Each of these processes is constrained and governed by linguistic
rules. An implicit knowledge of their structure and their integration
is essential to language comprehension. Three basic elements come
together to support linguistic knowledge:
- To understand language, one must be able to hear, distinguish
and categorize the sounds in speech (phonology).
- One needs to be implicitly familiar with the structure that
constrains the way words fit together to make phrases and sentences
- One must be able to understand the meaning of individual words
and sentences being spoken and the meaningful relations between
Linguistic knowledge depends upon all three elements being synthesized
rapidly and fluently. Each of these elements can be examined in
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understand spoken language, a child must be able to hear and distinguish
the sounds that make up the language. Virtually every child raised
in a normal linguistic environment has the ability to distinguish
between different speech sounds in her native language. Almost all
native English speakers can therefore hear the difference between
similar English words like "grow" and "glow."
When children produce these words themselves, however, they may
not be able to articulate distinctly enough for others to hear the
distinction. Difficulty with articulation does not imply difficulty
Hearing the difference between similar sounding words such
as "grow" and "glow" is easy for most children,
but not for all children. Some children are raised in homes where
English is not spoken, or where non-standard dialects of English
are spoken. Likewise, some children suffer auditory trauma or ear
infections that affect their ability to hear speech. Any child who
is not consistently exposed to English phonology may have difficulty
perceiving the subtle differences between English phonemes. Obviously,
children who are not able to hear the difference between similar-sounding
words like "grow" and "glow" will be confused
when these words appear in context, and their comprehension skills
will suffer dramatically.
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German, the main verb typically comes at the end of a clause. In
Romance languages, adjectives typically follow the noun. Different
languages have different rules of syntax that constrain the way
words and phrases can be arranged. In another language, the sentence,
"Billy has a black dog" might be written, "A dog black Billy has."
However, the rules of English syntax prohibit us from rearranging
the words in sentences haphazardly. The way that words are arranged
in English sentences has a fairly stringent structure, and one does
not need to be able to formally diagram sentences to understand
that structure implicitly.
The stringent structure of English syntax is not accidental. Syntax
provides some meaning and helps minimize ambiguity. Consider these
actual newspaper headlines:
- "Enraged Cow Injures Farmer with Ax"
- "Two Sisters Reunited after 18 Years in Checkout
- "New York Police Kill Man with Hammer"
All of the words make sense, but the poor syntax makes the sentences
ambiguous. People who have a limited appreciation for English syntax
may not understand why these sentences are confusing.
Syntax can also help people figure out meanings for unfamiliar
words. For example, consider the sentence, "I fell asleep while
waiting for Mary to return from the tembal." Your knowledge
of English syntax helps you to develop some ideas about what "tembal"
might mean, but if you were not familiar with English syntax, you
might not even know that "tembal" is a noun.
The fact that the rules of syntax change from language to language
can confuse people learning English as a second language. However,
again, this is not exclusively a problem for second language learners.
Children who come from impoverished linguistic environments are
usually comfortable only with very simple syntactic structure. Unfortunately,
without a moderately sophisticated implicit understanding of the
rules of syntax, language comprehension is severely limited for
these children, especially when they are expected to work in more
formal linguistic settings like schools.
Instruction tip: Invite the class to
sit outside in a circle on the grass. Ask them to close their
eyes and listen. Remain silent. After a few seconds, ask students
what they heard. The activity may need to be repeated several
times for children to become comfortable with the activity.
Initially, ask students to tell you what they heard in simple
sentences. Example: "I heard a bird." "I hear
a dog barking." Later, ask students to describe what
they heard in more complex syntax ("First I heard a bird,
then I heard a dog barking, and the whole time, I could hear
the wind blowing.").
Assessment tip: A cloze assessment can
be modified to assess syntax. Give students sentences with
selected words missing, and ask them to supply syntactically
appropriate words. Remember, there is no single correct answer
in this type of assessment: The child's response may not make
sense, yet still may be syntactically correct. For example,
the sentence, "Mark lifted a _____ over his head" can be completed
with any noun or noun phrase "train" "pillow" or "dream"
could all fit there. For young children, this test should
be presented orally.
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ultimate goal of language is to convey meaning. While phonology
carries information that makes spoken words distinct, and syntax
constrains the arrangement of words in language, semantics refers
to the information contained within the language. Semantics is a
global term that collectively describes meaning at three different
levels of language; the discourse / sentence level, the vocabulary
level, and the morphology level.
Semantics at the discourse / sentence level
The celebrated linguist, Noam Chomsky, coined the sentence, "Colorless
green ideas sleep furiously," to illustrate the fact that phonology
and syntax can be preserved even in the absence of semantics. The
words in the sentence are composed of speech sounds found in English
(otherwise, the words themselves would not make sense), and the
sentence is syntactically correct (the words sound right together),
but the sentence is not semantically acceptable.
Artificial, meaningless sentences like Chomskys do not come
up often in typical conversation, but children often face real sentences
that do not make sense to them. To understand or gain meaning from
speech, a listener must examine meaning at several different levels
simultaneously. At the more global level, meaning can be examined
at the level of discourse, sentences, and phrases. As Chomskys
sentence illustrates, it is possible to combine meaningful words
in meaningless ways, but this is not typically a problem. People
do not make a habit of producing meaningless sentences deliberately.
More typically, when meaning breaks down at this global level, it
is because a sentence has meaning for one person but not for another.
(Or the sentence may mean something different for another person.)
Similarly, meaning may break down at the global levels because certain
statements or sentences do not fit appropriately in the discourse.
If two people are discussing literature, and one of them interjects
a non sequitur about baseball, the other may wonder if she has missed
some part of the conversation.
Semantics at the vocabulary level
Meaning can also be examined at the level of the individual word
(vocabulary). If you were learning a foreign language, and you knew
only the most basic words for communication, you would certainly
have difficulty understanding a native speaker. If you have studied
the language, you might understand a few of the words, and you might
try to piece the words you know together to get the gist of the
communication. You would be attempting to assemble meaning at the
sentence or phrase level, but you really would not have much confidence
in your understanding. You would probably perform poorly if you
were tested on your comprehension, especially if you did not understand
some of the words in the test. To understand speech, you have to
understand most of the words that are spoken. (It is worth noting
that while you can infer the meaning of a few words from context,
you must understand most of the words in order to build that context.)
Children face this bewildering problem every daypeople are
constantly using words around them that they do not understand.
New vocabulary is introduced on a daily basis. The average student
learns about eight new words per day (3,000 words per year) for
the first few years of formal education.
Semantics at the morphology level
The third and most basic level of meaning analysis is morphology,
or the meaning of word parts. A morpheme is the smallest meaningful
unit of speech, so a single word may contain more than one morpheme
(e.g., the word "smallest" has two morphemes, "small"
and "est"each part has meaning). A childs
vocabulary is greatly enriched when the child learns to examine
the structure of wordsto examine words at the morpheme level.
The child learns that words with common roots have common meanings,
and that affixes influence the meaning of a word in specific ways.
Children use their understanding of morphology to learn new words,
and when they learn to read, a good understanding of morphology
helps children spell and pronounce words correctly (helping them
understand why "doing" does not rhyme with "boing").
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problem of learning to read, as stated previously, is made up of
two equally important components: language comprehension and decoding.
Even among children who have adequate language comprehension skills,
there are children who have difficulty reading because they have
only mastered one of the two components. Just as some children are
fortunate to be raised in environments rich in language experiences,
some children are fortunate to be raised in homes surrounded by
literature and text. Usually, these environments are one in the
samebut not always. Some children, for example, come from
cultures with rich storytelling traditions, but with limited use
of text and writing. There are many children who are only rarely
exposed to text in their householdthese children may enter
school with only scant appreciation for what text is. To be a good
reader, a child will need to understand what text is, how it works,
and what it is used for. Unfortunately, as every teacher of young
children knows, not all children have the same foundations for literacy.
The appreciation for text that children have when they come to school
varies tremendously, and this variability needs to be addressed
as early as possible. Each childs text-related skills must
be assessed, and focused instruction in appropriate reading and
writing skills should start as soon as the child comes to school,
be that in first grade, kindergarten, or pre-kindergarten.
Researchers have found that a child's ability to decode words in
the first grade is an excellent predictor of the childs reading
comprehension skill in the fourth grade. Many organizations, such
as the International Reading Association (IRA) and the National
Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), have published
position statements saying it is never too early to begin literacy
instruction, and that literacy instruction should be the concern
of anybody working with young children (preschool, daycare, etc.).
The assessment and instruction provided in these vital first years
of formal education should focus on the cognitive elements that
research has shown to be crucial to the process of developing decoding
skills. These areas include cipher knowledge, lexical knowledge,
an awareness of phonemes, knowledge of the alphabetic principle,
knowledge of letters, and understanding concepts about print. Each
of these cognitive elements can be examined in turn.
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knowledge basically refers to the underlying knowledge that allows
children to read and pronounce regular words correctly. The term
"cipher knowledge" may not be a familiar term, but it
is a technically precise term, and if teachers are to become experts,
they should become familiar with the correct terminology. The technically
precise term, "cipher knowledge," is used here to distinguish
it from "decoding." Again, if teachers are to become experts,
they should understand how a "cipher" differs from a "code."
While a cipher refers to a regular and consistent relationship,
a code refers to a more arbitrary and nonsystematic relationship.
If you were to replace every letter in written English with a number
(e.g., a=1, b=2, c=3, etc.), then you would have developed a cipher,
and "deciphering" it would be a matter of following basic
rules of translation. On the other hand, if you were to replace
whole words with arbitrary numbers (e.g., "the"=11, "of"=21,
"and"=13, etc.), then you would have created a code, and
a codebook would be required for translation. Thus, when we talk
about "deciphering" text, we are talking about the ability
to "sound out" regular words (sometimes called "word attack"
skills). Cipher knowledge, then, is demonstrated when a person appropriately
sounds out words she has never seen before.
Early in the development of cipher knowledge, children learn that
certain letter combinations are valid and others are invalid. Young
children who are gaining cipher knowledge, despite limited vocabularies,
are able to tell that "pem" could be a word, but that
"pvm" could not possibly be.
As children continue to develop cipher knowledge, they begin to
understand that the English writing system is, for the most part,
regular and consistent. They understand, at least implicitly, that
words with similar spellings are usually pronounced similarly. Children
quickly start to recognize common letter groups in words, and they
begin to "read by analogy." Thus, when a child who has
realized that words with similar spellings are pronounced similarly
comes across a word she has never seen before, such as "pone,"
she can pronounce it correctly based on her knowledge of other similar
words that she is familiar with, such as "lone," "prone,"
"bone," "tone," "phone," "zone,"
or "cone." There is some small possibility that her pronunciation
will be incorrect ("pone" might rhyme with "done"
or "gone"), but chances are the new word will follow the
same pattern as known words with similar spellings.
This ability to decipher words is critically important to decoding,
and its usefulness can not be overstated. This ability, like the
English language itself, is generative, and the foundation of decoding
rests upon the ability to decipher.
Instruction tip: Deciphering and decoding
are not the same thingusing the spelling-sound knowledge
about letters in the English language to "sound out" words
is deciphering. Pronouncing words correctly regardless of
whether they are regular or irregular is decoding. If a child
pronounced "steak" so it rhymed with "beak," the child would
be deciphering the word, but not decoding it. When teaching
children cipher knowledge, it is best to take the emphasis
off of correct pronunciation, and reward children for correctly
sounding-out words (or, if possible, avoid using irregular
words in that lesson).
Assessment tip: For younger children,
make up simple nonsense words, and ask them to name them.
Children who can decipher words have no trouble reading words
like "hin" "vab" or "lat." For older children, either make
up nonsense words that are more appropriate for older children
(e.g., "porviate"), or make up a list of people's names that
can be deciphered (e.g., "Marty Fendrick"). Tell the children
you'd like them to pretend they are a teacher calling roll.
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a technically precise, although probably unfamiliar term is used
here: Lexical knowledge simply refers to the knowledge that enables
a child to correctly recognize and pronounce familiar, irregular
words. As discussed earlier, the English writing system is fairly
structured with some fairly consistent spelling-sound relationships.
Some have attempted to formally identify a set of "rules" that capture
English spelling-sound relationships, but these attempts have always
been somewhat unsatisfactory there are always many exceptions
to any rule. For example, in a phonics lesson, the teacher may tell
the children, "Words that end in silent-e have long vowels,"
but that is only true 60 percent of the time. Children seem to be
much better at recognizing patterns and making generalizations based
upon observed patterns than at applying explicit rules when decoding
The consistent patterns that exist in the English writing system
would be described as the "cipher" (see Cipher Knowledge).
As children try to identify patterns, however, they are faced with
potentially confusing information because many words in English
are "exception" or "irregular" words. The pronunciations
of these irregular words are not consistent with other words that
are spelled similarly: "Colonel" really should not sound
like "kernel," and "tongue" ought to be spelled T-U-N-G.
Unfortunately, in order to become proficient readers of English,
children must be able to fluently and correctly identify both regular
and irregular words.
Fortunately, even for irregular words, most of the word can be
accurately deciphered or "sounded out." The irregular word, "friend,"
for example, is only irregular because of the vowel soundthe
rest of the word is regular. Deciphering the word results in a pronunciation
that is nearly correctclose enough that the young reader can
usually figure it out. (Extremely irregular words like "colonel"
and "aisle" are actually rare in English.) When a child encounters
a regular word, deciphering it is enough, but when she encounters
an irregular word, after attempting to decipher it, the child may
need to mentally compare that word against other known words. To
do this, the child needs an internal representation of all of the
words she knows that includes information about spelling, pronunciation,
conjugation, meaning, and other relevant details. Reading specialists
call this internal representation of all of the words we know our
"lexicon"basically, it is the dictionary in your head. To
correctly pronounce irregular words, young readers depend upon their
lexical knowledge, which develops with practice, feedback, and exposure
Lexical knowledge develops throughout a reader's life. (Even adults
are constantly learning new words you, for example, might
have just learned the word "lexicon.") But the development of lexical
knowledge is most visible in children. Young readers start out as
sight-word readers: They memorize words as wholes, or they look
for some salient feature in a word. Sight-word reading is extremely
inefficient and very limited, but the few words the young reader
is familiar with are all pronounced correctly. (Whether the word
is regular or irregular is not relevant at this point.)
When the child realizes the limitations of memorizing whole words
and starts learning to decipher words, she may appear to be taking
a step backwards. She might struggle to recognize and correctly
pronounce irregular words that she seemed to know previously. Eventually,
through experience with the words and with feedback from the teacher,
she will begin to learn correct pronunciations for irregular words.
The more the child reads, and the more feedback she gets, the more
irregular words she will be able to identify correctly.
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words are made up of sounds. This is obvious to adults, but it is
surprisingly obscure for young children who perceive spoken words
as wholes. Within a word, there may be other words (as in the case
of compound words). There may also be multiple syllables. And, of
course, every spoken word is comprised of phonemes.
When a child becomes generally aware of the fact that spoken words
are made up of sounds, she is described as having "phonological
awareness." Phonological awareness can take the form of awareness
of rhyme, awareness of syllables, awareness of the onsets of words,
Do not confuse phonological awareness with phoneme awareness, however.
Phoneme awareness is a more specific term that falls under the umbrella
of phonological awareness. It refers to the specific understanding
that spoken words are made up of individual phonemesnot just
sounds in general, but phonemes. Children with phoneme awareness
know that the word "wait" is made up of three phonemes, and that
the words "pill" and "map" both contain the phoneme /p/. In short,
they know that phonemes are the building blocks of spoken words,
and that these building blocks can be rearranged and substituted
to make different words.
Phonological awareness is a step in the right direction, but
phoneme awareness is what is necessary for the child to understand
that the letters in written words represent the phonemes in spoken
words (the alphabetic principle). Understanding that the letter
M stands for the sound /m/, by itself, is not phoneme awareness.
Teachers need to ensure that children understand that, for example,
the word "camel" has an /m/ sound in it, and that the /m/ sound
in the middle of "camel" is the same as the /m/ sound
at the end of "home" and at the beginning of "moon."
Phoneme awareness and phonological awareness are often confused
with phonics, but phonics is an instructional approach that emphasizes
letter-sound relationships and rules for pronunciation. The emphasis
in a phonics classroom is the mapping between letters and phonemes
(as in the previous examplethe letter m represents
the sound /m/). Phoneme awareness is not necessarily related to
phonics. It is possible for a child to have phoneme awareness without
having much experience with written letters or with letter names,
and conversely it is possible for a child to provide examples of
letter-sound relationships without ever developing phoneme awareness
(a child with no phoneme awareness may know the letter m
represents the sound /m/ without knowing that the word "ham" has
an /m/ sound in it). Many children do not develop phoneme awareness
from traditional phonics instruction; simply learning letter-sound
relationships does not necessarily help a child to gain phoneme
awareness. New phonics programs are incorporating explicit instruction
in phoneme awareness, but traditionally, phoneme awareness instruction
was never a part of phonics classrooms.
Another concept that people often confuse with phoneme awareness
is phonology. However, phonology (as discussed in the elements under
language comprehension), has to do with being able to distinguish
between similar phonemes when they are embedded in the context of
whole words. Phonology has to do with being able to hear the difference
between the spoken words "sip" and "ship;" phoneme
awareness has to do with being aware that the word "sip"
is made up of three sounds: /s/, /i/ and /p/. Most children entering
school have normal phonologic skills, but most children lack phoneme
awareness when they come to school. For most children, phoneme awareness
must be explicitly taught.
The importance of teaching phoneme awareness cannot be overstated.
Hundreds of studies of phoneme awareness conducted over the past
25 years indicate the following:
- Phoneme awareness is essential to the process
of learning to read.
- Explicitly teaching phoneme awareness facilitates
later reading acquisition.
- Some reading failure has been linked to a
lack of phoneme awareness.
As important as it is, however, it is possible to go overboard
teaching phoneme awareness. English contains many confusing phonemes
such as diphthongs and glides that even mature, experienced readers
can have trouble identifying. (How many phonemes do you hear in
"play" or "cube"?) Furthermore, certain phonemes
are not universally defined. (What are the phonemes in "wring"
It is important for the teacher to remember that a child does not
need to be an Olympic champion at phoneme manipulation; she just
needs to demonstrate knowledge of the fact that spoken words are
made up of phonemes and that phonemes can be rearranged and manipulated
to make different words. That level of awareness is all a child
needs to understand the alphabetic principle (more on that later),
which is the only reason that phoneme awareness is important
in learning to decode text. An appropriate level of phoneme awareness
can be instilled and supported with a select subset of phonemes.
Phoneme awareness can be taught using words that do not contain
consonant clusters or glides, and that have phonemes which are easy
to pronounce in isolation. (The phoneme /b/, for example, is often
avoided in phoneme awareness lessons because it can not be pronounced
without a subsequent vowel sound. Pronouncing /b/ so that it sounds
like /buh/ is confusing to a child trying to develop phoneme awareness.)
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every language has an alphabet. In Japanese, the symbols in text
represent syllables; in the traditional Chinese writing system,
each symbol represents a whole word. In most western languages,
however, the symbols in text represent phonemes. Knowledge of the
alphabetic principle refers to an understanding that spoken words
are made up of phonemes (phoneme awareness) and that those phonemes
are represented in text as letters. An understanding of the alphabetic
principle is the cornerstone on which English literacy is built.
Unfortunately, it is a concept that children often fail to grasp
(usually because they lack phoneme awareness, and therefore, do
not understand what letters in text represent).
To master decoding, and to make sense of letter-sound relationships,
a child must first make the connection between the symbols on the
page and the sounds in speech. Specifically, she needs to understand
that the letters in written words correspond to the phonemes in
spoken words. A child who is "sight reading" can see a
symbol on a page and know that it stands for a spoken word, but
the symbol that she is seeing is the whole word. Teachers need to
focus the childs attention on the letters that make up written
words and the phonemes that make up spoken words.
Similarly, some children are able to demonstrate a knowledge of
letter-sound relationships without actually understanding the alphabetic
principle. Such children are able to report that the letter "s"
makes an /s/ sound, but they really do not understand that "fast"
and "seat" both have an /s/ sound in them, and that the
/s/ sound is represented by a letter when you write the word.
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letter is the basic unit of reading and writing, and letter knowledge
has consistently been shown to be one of the best predictors of
later reading success. A child beginning to read should be familiar
with these elements of text, but simple knowledge of the alphabet
is not enough. For a child, the alphabet is an arbitrary poem or
song filled with meaningless babble. (Most people are familiar with
the fact that children often think that "lmno" is a single
unit.) The alphabet song does not necessarily have any more meaning
to a child than any other song, and many children learn to recite
the alphabet without any understanding of what they are reciting.
Before they can read, children must be comfortable and familiar
with the letters of the alphabet. They should be able to identify
the letters in different fonts and type case, and they should be
comfortable with handwritten letters as well as letters embedded
within words (as opposed to presented in isolation). Most importantly,
they should be able to discriminate one letter from the other letters
of the alphabet (e.g., what features of the letter p makes
it different from the letter q).
A variety of approaches are used for teaching children the letters
of the alphabet, and some approaches are more effective for some
children than for others. When learning about letters, some children
find it easier to learn the letter sounds rather than the letter
names. (This approach for teaching letter-knowledge is often associated
with the Montessori approach.) Some children are already familiar
with the letter sounds, and learning to match the symbol or symbols
that could be used to represent each sound may be less confusing
for those children.
Similarly, some children find it easier to learn about the shapes
of the letters first, before learning letter names. Once they are
able to sort the letters into different categories (letters with
curved parts, letters with straight parts, letters that stick up,
letters than hang down, etc.), then they are able to attach names
to the different letters. As with anything else, when learning something
new, it is always easier to build onto familiar information.
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young children are unaware of text, and have no understanding of
what it is or how it works. Often, these children think that the
pictures in books contain all of the information, and that when
people "read," they are using the pictures as the source
of information. It has been often documented that when children
first engage in play-reading behavior, they typically focus their
attention on the pages with pictures. However, as children mature
and gain more text experience, their attention moves to the pages
containing the text. Children who are developing healthy concepts
about print flip through books from beginning to end (holding them
right-side-up), and they point to the text they are "reading"
(even though they may be telling a story unrelated to the actual
text). As they point, they may even demonstrate the understanding
that text is read from top to bottom in sweeps from left to right,
and they may point at the individual words in the passage (as opposed
to pointing at random locations in the line).
Also, a childs early attempts at writing can give many
insights into her concepts about print. Even though the child's
writing is not recognizable as anything more than scribbles, an
observant teacher may notice that the child is scribbling in lines
starting at the top of the page one above another
and each line is scribbled from left to right with spaces between
scribbles on a line. These outward behaviors, to the trained eye,
are demonstrations of the childs understanding of the mechanics
As they learn more about text and the rules that govern text
construction, children very quickly develop concepts about the way
text is "supposed" to be. They may even go through a period
where they do not want to write any more because they are not able
to do it "right." This can be discouraging for a teacher,
but this behavior is a sign that the child is developing healthy
concepts about print. For children who grow up with rich text experiences,
print concepts often develop without any explicit instruction, but
for children who grow up in a text-poor environment, understanding
the mechanics of print may require explicit instruction.
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have described many elements that support good reading comprehension
here. We have said that reading comprehension depends upon two equally
important skills (language comprehension and decoding), and that
each of those skills depends upon more fundamental skills. This
suggests that a teacher should first teach the fundamental skills
before teaching the more advanced skills, but that is certainly
not our recommendation. The cognitive elements we have described
here tend to develop congruently in a young readers mind,
and the elements, as they develop, serve to reinforce each other.
Further, the development of these elements is not very predictableit
varies from child to child. The message that we are trying to convey
with this framework is that all of these elements are important,
and that teachers need to be mindful of each child's individual
The structure of the framework suggests a strategy for diagnostic
reading assessment. If a child can not read grade-appropriate text,
the first two areas a teacher should examine are the childs
language comprehension skill (could the child understand the text
if it was read aloud to her), and the childs decoding skill.
If problems are uncovered at that gross level, the rest of the framework
suggests a strategy for examining more fundamental reading skills.
The structure of the framework is not meant to suggest that reading
comprehension can not occur until all of the more fundamental cognitive
elements are fully developed. Reading comprehension is like the
motor in a car if every part functions well and the motor
is put together properly, the motor as a whole will function well,
but even when some of the parts are not functioning very well, the
motor sometimes still runs, albeit poorly.
It is unclear when reading comprehension begins. It could be argued
that reading comprehension in its most fundamental form begins when
a child first makes the connection between symbol and concept. For
some children, that may come from environmental print; for others,
that may come from recognizing their own printed name. A child who
has not developed the knowledge necessary to "sound out" words but
who can recognize a few hundred "sight words" is able
to "read" and understand certain basic text, as long as
the words in the text are within her sight-word vocabulary. The
motor runs, it just does not run well, and it only runs when conditions
Stretching the motor analogy further, all of the parts of
a motor may be independently functional, but the motor will not
run if the motor itself is not assembled correctly. The cognitive
elements that give rise to good reading comprehension are not isolated
from each other. We have presented them in this framework as if
they were fractured and modular, but we did so only to describe
them, and to see how they relate to each other. Our presentation
should by no means be taken as an indication that reading instruction
should be fractured and modular. Children sometimes have trouble
putting the pieces together and understanding how these basic skills
relate to reading. It is common for children to be comfortable and
competent with drills from phonics lessons but to be unaware that
they should apply that knowledge to unfamiliar words in text. Likewise,
it is common for children to not recognize that the sounds they
hear in their phonics lesson are the same sounds they hear in speech.
A good reading teacher does not merely teach the basic skills, but
also teaches how those basic skills relate to each other and helps
children integrate these various elements to support their reading
Reading comprehension is a skill with a knowledge base just like
all of the elements that support it, and as such, it can and should
be taught explicitly. The teacher can help the student develop an
appreciation for the different types of reading comprehension (literal
comprehension, inferential comprehension, and evaluative comprehension),
and the different types of text (expository, narrative, formal,
informal) and can introduce the child to the differences in literary
genres. The child can be encouraged to move from a mastery of oral
reading to a mastery of more efficient and mature silent reading,
and along with teaching explicit strategies to improve comprehension,
the teacher can help the child learn to monitor her own comprehension
of text as she reads.
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Let us return to our child sitting in a comfortable chair, reading
silently to herself. We now know that she is decoding the text,
quickly and automatically, and she is depending on her language
comprehension ability to comprehend the decoded text. Now we know
that her ability to decode the text depends upon some fundamental,
interrelated cognitive elements. Her ability to decode the text
is grounded in her understanding of the mechanics of text (concepts
about print), her knowledge that spoken words are made up of phonemes
(phoneme awareness), her familiarity with the letters in the language
(letter knowledge), her knowledge that the letters in the written
words represent phonemes (alphabetic principle), and her ability
to bring these elements together to decipher regular words. Further,
because she makes a habit of reading and has been exposed to a lot
of text, she has been developing her lexical knowledge so that she
can recognize and correctly pronounce irregular words. This last
element will develop throughout her life as she reads more and more.
We also know that her ability to comprehend the decoded text depends
upon her general language comprehension skills, and that her comprehension
skills are also supported by a collection of interrelated cognitive
elements. Her language comprehension skills are dependent upon her
ability to perceive the phonology of the language, an appreciation
for the rules of syntax in the language, and an understanding that
words and sentences have meaning (semantics). She uses her background
knowledge to elaborate on the information she is gathering, and
the information she is gathering, in turn, modifies and enhances
her background knowledge.
She is sitting, independently reading a book. As she does so, she
is becoming more and more experienced and practiced with text. A
few years ago, when she was learning to read, she struggled with
decoding the text and connecting that text with meaning. Reading
was laborious and unrewarding. However, somebody motivated her to
keep trying and helped her gain the skills she needs to be a reader.
Now she decodes wordsboth regular and irregular wordsfluently
and automatically, with such ease that she can fully focus her attention
on comprehending the text.