Reading Foundations

What knowledge or skills are required for one to read? For those of us who are readers, it seems so simple and practically seamless. But, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard an adult in one of my trainings share his/her experiences of reading difficulties as a child. Not only is learning to read very complex, the feelings associated with reading can be wonderfully satisfying or very negative and often stay with us throughout life.

The information below provides just a brief explanation of the components that go into learning to read. In order for one to read words, sentences, paragraphs,  stories, and a variety of text styles, each of these foundational components comes into play. Teachers of children in grades preK-3 have the monumental responsibility of masterfully teaching our children these fundamental skills in a way that is effective and engaging. BUT, many of these components can be introduced as early as infancy. Exposure to these skills through modeling by the parent or caregiver is the first and one of the most critical pieces to the literacy puzzle.

Phonological Awareness

One of the foundational skills necessary for making connections between sound and print, this ‘awareness’ ranges from the ability to understand that sentences are made of individual words up to the ability to manipulate sounds in words.

Phonological skills are categorized into four areas: word, syllable, onset-rime (/b/…. /ig/), and phonemes. While there are so many activities we can do with children to promote this awareness, the ability to blend and segment phonemes has been proven to be the most—. A phoneme is simply a sound in the English language that carries meaning. For instance, in the word ‘cat’, the /k/ /a/ /t/ are all separate phonemes.

A suggestion I would give to parents who want to work with their children in the area of phonological awareness is first, not to be nervous! So many of us are afraid that we’re going to mess up in some way. Next, I would recommend enunciating the sounds in words as clearly as possible. This will help eliminate some confusion for your children.


Learning to read words is fundamental to understanding text. Although proficient readers use multiple strategies for figuring out unfamiliar words, the most reliable strategy is decoding (Adams 1990).

This quote is the crux of phonics. Children require many skills to open a book and make sense of the symbols on a page. Phonics, the understanding of the connection between the alphabetic code and the associated sounds, is one of the most important of these skills. Phonics increases in difficulty as the child’s development progresses. It begins with knowing the names of letters in the alphabet  and progresses into understanding greek and latin roots and the ability to work through a word that has multiple syllables.

Here is a general sequence of phonic elements:

  • single consonants and short vowels
  • consonant digraphs (th, sh, ch, tch, wh)
  • long vowels with silent e
  • long vowels at the end of words or syllables
  • r- controlled vowels
  • silent consonants
  • vowel digraphs (Combinations that make one sound- ee, ea, ei, ie, oo, ai, ay, ue, ect)
  • diphthongs (Combinations that ‘move’ from one sound to another- oi, oy, ow, ou)


Vocabulary is the knowledge of words and meanings. But, it is not quite so simple. In order to truly know a word, we not only need to know the definition, but the connection to the concepts it fits with.

There are two forms of vocabulary, receptive and productive. Receptive includes both the understanding of words we hear and the words we read in text. The productive form applies to understanding how to use words in our own speech and writing.

The most important first steps to developing a large vocabulary bank in a child is to begin by talking to him/her from infancy on. Using a variety of words to explain things, repeating what the child says and expanding the statement with more details, and talking about books you read aloud are critical first steps.

“Of the many benefits of having a large vocabulary, none is more valuable than the positive contribution that vocabulary size makes to reading comprehension.” (Nagy, 2005)


In order for children to comprehend text, they must become fluent readers. According to experts Hudson, Lane, and Pullen (2005), fluency can be described as, “accurate reading of connected text at a conversational rate with appropriate prosody or expression.” You can think of fluency as the bridge connecting the ability to decode with comprehending what is read.

Fluency is usually assessed beginning in first grade when children have had a year or more of strong instruction in phonological awareness, phonics, and vocabulary. Assessments usually measure the number of words read correctly in one minute. (See Questions to discuss with your child’s teacher for more information on fluency assessment.)


And, we come to the ultimate goal of reading~ comprehension. It can be defined as, “the process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction of ideas between the reader and the message in a particular text.” (Rand Reading Study Group, 2002) Another way to put it is, “thinking guided by print.” Perfetti (1985)

Teaching children how to understand text is such a complex topic encompassing vast skills and strategies. It includes the understanding of the content, genre, vocabulary, text structure, graphic features, and the style of text.

Readers who are engaged with text WANT to read. The more they read (at their independent level), the stronger they become. Strong readers also continually learn new words. This process was coined by Matthew Stanovich as the ‘Matthew Effect’. Just as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer~ the same can happen with children and reading. Good readers choose to read and read more often exposing them to more words and concepts. Poor readers do not like to read because it is so challenging and so they have fewer opportunities in text  which means the fewer words they see and know.