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Reading Basics

When a child starts school, reading becomes a primary way of learning. Reading is a means to understanding the world and a fundamental skill required to succeed. But it is a skill that takes years to fully develop. And for some children, those years can be arduous and frustrating.

Helping a student who is struggling with reading begins with understanding the difficulties. In general, a reading difficulty represents a breakdown somewhere in the process of learning to read. However, individual difficulties are as individual as the child, and other factors may be related. Since there are so many interrelated neurodevelopmental and physical tasks involved in reading, finding the problem may not be easy. Testing for the student and consultation with teachers, reading specialists, and others may help significantly in understanding what is going on with a specific child.

The Components of Reading

Learning to read is a sequential process; each new skill builds on the mastery of previously learned skills. Each step in the process relates to one of three components of reading: decoding, comprehension, or retention. These are component tasks of reading and also in a general view, the progressive steps in learning to read, which move from sounds, to words, to sentences and paragraphs.

At a basic level, children recognize that letters represent the sounds of spoken words. As children master each letter of the alphabet, they map these letters to the sounds they represent. This mapping enables children to begin to decipher whole words. By breaking up words into their component sounds – phonemes – children can sound out words. For example, the word “bag” is made up of three phonemes, /b/, /a/, and /g/. Children who decode easily hear these three sounds, not because the ear hears them that way – the ear hears one pulse of sound – but because the brain automatically separates them. With practice, decoding becomes automatic for the normally progressing reader. Children see words and read them without struggling, even if they don’t know the meaning of every word. Decoding is a foundation that children need to read quickly and fluently.

Try it yourself. Experience difficulty with decoding.

The second task in reading is understanding the written word. Comprehension ultimately depends on the ability to decode and master sight words. When that word recognition becomes automatic, young readers are better able to concentrate on the meaning of whole sentences and paragraphs while they read. As they read, children also learn to simultaneously connect information within the context of a selection, relate what they are reading to what they already know, and stay focused.

The final task in reading is retaining, or remembering, what has been read. Children must be able to organize and summarize the content and readily connect it to what they already know. Reading retention enables students to keep information in their long-term memories and to call upon and apply it in the future.

Try it yourself. Experience struggling with retention.

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