** A guest post by Lynn Givens **

Reading is an astonishingly complex cognitive process.  While we often think of reading as one singular act, our brains are actually engaging in a number of tasks simultaneously when we read. There are five components in the process of learning to read: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.  As children learn to read, they must develop skills in all of these components in order to become successful readers.  Struggling readers often have foundational gaps in one of more of these components.

Phonemic awareness, the highest level of phonological awareness, begins with the knowledge that spoken words are made of up smaller elements called phonemes. For example, the word “ship” has 3 phonemes, /sh/, /i/, and /p/.   Phonemic awareness skills involve manipulating these small sounds in spoken words.  The two most critical skills in phonemic awareness are the ability to blend phonemes, knowing that /c/ /a/ /t/ is the word “cat”, and the ability to segment phonemes, knowing that “camp” can be separated into the sounds /c/, /a/, /m/, and /p/.

Phonics involves mapping these sounds to letters. According to the National Reading Panel, it is “the direct teaching of letter-sound relationships in a clearly defined sequence.”  We know that phonics instruction produces significant benefits for children from kindergarten through 6thgrade and for children having difficulty learning to read. We also know that it is critical to teach each phonetic pattern and to not ask students to figure these out for themselves.

Vocabulary instruction is intimately tied to comprehension.  Direct and indirect instruction in learning new words is especially important for struggling readers because they typically read less challenging books with less challenging vocabulary.

Fluency is a reader’s ability to read accurately, with sufficient speed and appropriate expression also referred to as prosody.  Automaticity is defined as “fast, accurate, and effortless word identification at the single word level.” Fluency involves not only automatic word identification but also the application of features such as meaningful phrasing, rhythm and intonation.  Many struggling students do learn to read words automatically, but they often do not learn to read with prosody, which greatly affects their ability to understand what they are reading.

Silent reading is a way of practicing reading, but it has not been shown to increase fluency. Guided reading, more effective in improving fluency, means that students are reading aloud under the guidance of a teacher.  The teacher may discuss words that may cause difficulty for students, relating them to patterns and rules that students have learned.  The teacher can also model prosody, reading aloud with proper expression and intonation, and then have students echo her example.

Decodable text is a wonderful way to aid struggling readers in fluency improvement.  This type of text uses words and patterns that students have already been taught so that decoding the words is not an issue and the students can concentrate on reading in meaningful phrases with proper expression. After they have mastered fluency with this type of text, they will be more ready to read text that is less decodable.

Comprehension is what most people think reading is.  This is because comprehension is the main reason that we read.  It is the aspect of reading that all other components work to create.  Reading comprehension is more than just understanding words in isolation.  It is putting them together and using prior knowledge to develop meaning.  Like vocabulary, comprehension skills develop over time through explicit instruction and practice.

If teachers wait until students can independently read the material they are using for comprehension instruction, they are missing many opportunities to teach critical strategies.   According to a NICHD report from 2004, “The materials used to build children’s comprehension should be geared to their oral language comprehension level.  Comprehension strategies and new vocabulary should be taught using orally presented stories and text that are more sophisticated than the early text that children read.  As students become fluent readers, they can then apply these comprehension strategies to their own reading.” Teachers can use interactive read-alouds for this purpose.

The major difference between struggling readers and their more fluent peers is that fluent readers can effectively decode and comprehend text simultaneously.  They can focus on the main ideas and important information while reading.  They can self-monitor while reading so that they know when lack of understanding occurs. They can organize information learned from reading in meaningful ways.  Struggling readers often have diminished ability in these skills because so much of their cognitive energy is spent on decoding and identifying words. In terms of comprehending, struggling readers often:

  • Have difficulty recalling main events in a text.
  • Focus so much on the details of the text that the main idea is lost.
  • Cannot “picture” what is going on in a written passage.
  • Have difficulty providing evidence from the text to support their answers.
  • Struggle to extract meaning from informational text.
  • Have difficulty monitoring their own understanding, so they are unsure of what they have learned from a text.
  • Are often unaware of basic strategies that good readers use, such as rereading passages they don’t understand.

So, comprehension instruction for struggling readers should be more explicit and more sequential, and it should provide many more opportunities for guided practice.

Mrs. Givens has been a teacher of struggling readers and a teacher educator for over 35 years. She served as Director of Intervention at the Florida Center for Reading Research where she was involved in providing intervention training and professional development for teachers throughout Florida. Until recently, Mrs. Givens has been teaching undergraduate reading courses at Florida State University’s School of Teacher Education and teaching and facilitating a practicum for teachers of struggling readers.  As a staff member at Beacon Educator for the past 10 years, she has acted as instructor/facilitator for online teacher endorsement courses in reading. Trained in the Orton-Gillingham approach, she spent eight years at the Schenck School in Atlanta, which provided her with a firm foundation in teaching students with dyslexia and other struggling readers. Her goal has always been to provide high-quality, explicit instruction to close the gaps for students who are having reading difficulties and to instruct teachers on how to do this as well.

To assist in this effort, Mrs. Givens has published several unique instructional materials, the Connect to Comprehension reading program and Phonics Games for Fluency, which are used to assist struggling readers and their teachers throughout the US. In collaboration with the Orton-Gillingham Online Academy, she has also developed an in-depth course on the foundations of reading instruction with a particular emphasis on helping students learn and practice upper-level comprehension skills.