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Education
Oct 19, 2018

How Reading Works

Sponsored Content provided by Yasmin Tomkinson - Executive Director, Cape Fear Literacy Council

Whether you are young or old, there are four components that you must integrate to be an effective reader. 

At Cape Fear Literacy Council (CFLC), we teach these concepts, along with strategies for developing the related skills, to our volunteer tutors, as well as to the adult learners we serve. 

Recently, I described the components of reading to parents of a 6 year old, and they found it quite helpful in thinking about their child’s educational growth.

I realized this information is probably relevant for all parents and maybe even all people, so here is a brief summary of the Four Components of Reading:

Alphabetics is basically phonics. It’s understanding the relationships between letters and the sounds they make, as well as the ability to manipulate those letters and sounds. 

In English, this is no small task!  

Because our language comes from many sources, there are different patterns and rules that govern how to decode – or break down – words. We can take comfort in the fact that more than 80 percent of our language does follow the rules, but the part that doesn’t includes many frequently used words. 

And while all four components are essential, alphabetics has to come first.

For many, this is the slowest and hardest part of reading. New readers may expend so much energy just sounding out the letters that they lose the meaning of the overall word, or certainly the sentence, they are working on. 

Vocabulary is knowing words and understanding their meanings. It is not enough to say a word; you must also know its definition.

Don’t we all know someone who throws around big words but doesn’t use them correctly? Or children who confuse terms? My daughter used “barely” instead of “nearly” for about six months, as in, “I barely fell out of the tree.” It was enough to raise a mother’s concern! 

Vocabulary takes a lot of practice and must be built up over time. Consider the stages of mastery to be something like: 1) I’ve never heard that word before; 2) I’ve heard it but don’t really know what it is; 3) I’m familiar with that word but not completely confident in using it; and 4) I own that word. The more words you own, the more easily you will understand what you read.

Of course, reading vocabulary is closely linked with spoken vocabulary and, unfortunately, studies have shown that toddlers of low-income families are exposed to 30 million fewer vocabulary words than toddlers of wealthy families. 

Fluency is reading with speed, expression and accuracy. It doesn’t mean that speed reading makes you better. Rather, it’s about having a fast-enough pace, with no errors, to increase comprehension. At CFLC, we often refer to this as reading with “flow.” 

A good way to develop this skill is to read something familiar at a comfortable rather than challenging level, and practice out loud so that someone else would understand you. 

Did you know that children 5 and over who read independently can schedule a time to read to a dog at the New Hanover County Public Library? It’s a great way to have an audience that doesn’t judge or correct! 

Comprehension is, simply, understanding what you read. As good readers, we tend to assume this is something that just happens naturally, but in fact, it’s a process. 

At CFLC, we teach a “before, during, and after” approach to comprehension. Before you read a newspaper article, do you read the headlines or look at the pictures? Before you choose a novel, do you read the reviews or blurb?

Before we dive into a text, most of us subconsciously consider our purpose for reading it, the author’s purpose for writing it – to entertain, inform, persuade – as well as what we already know about the subject and what we want to learn. 

But for new or struggling readers, it is helpful to identify and consider these things explicitly. During the reading process, it is important to ask questions as we go. Who is this about? What is happening? Why?  What do we think will happen next? It may be useful to underline key words or phrases or take notes. 

Have you ever read a challenging piece of technical or financial writing and needed to go back and reread it? For our students, slowing down and rereading are important tools for comprehension.  Sometimes you may understand all the words you read, but still find the information just “goes in one ear and out the other.” 

In order to lock that information in our brains, we need to do some work after reading. We need to truly engage with a text - to answer questions about it, summarize it, decide what’s true or false, what we think about it, or whether we agree with it, so we really understand and remember it.  Connecting new information to what we already know is the best way to truly comprehend and retain it. 

Thinking of reading as a process, rather than a magical thing that just happens, can help you be better at it.

Ultimately, all four components are necessary, all four affect one another, and all take lots and lots of practice.

Sometimes they integrate naturally as we read.  At CFLC, it helps for our tutors to be explicit about what concept they are focusing on so that adult learners understand how learning works. 

That’s metacognition… a vocabulary word for another day.    

Yasmin Tomkinson came to the Cape Fear Literacy Council as a volunteer tutor in 2002. It was a great experience, and she was very pleased to join the staff in 2004. She is now the Executive Director and enjoys working with adult learners and the volunteers who help them reach their goals. Yasmin studied Education and American History at Vassar College and got an MBA with a concentration in Non-Profit Management from Boston University. She worked for education-focused non-profits in rural Utah, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Boston before moving to Wilmington.

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