Learning to read is like...digging through an old coat closet and finding Narnia.  Children enter the wardrobe and start hanging up all the skills they acquire without realizing that with each step deeper into the closet, they are on the path to something fantastic.  As children fill up their wardrobes with all sorts of abilities – such as phonemic awareness, knowledge of phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension of text – they eventually find a whole new world that is limitless beyond even the most inventive imagination (this analogy made possible by a story that I read when I was 8 years old).

Books have the capacity to transport their readers to different countries, different eras, and even different worlds.  In order to reach those new places though, children have to know how to read.  Reading is a learned ability because it is not something that children pick up without efficient instruction and a lot – I mean A LOT – of practice.  Dr. Kathleen J. Brown, Director at the University of Utah’s Reading Clinic, offers some great insight into the way children learn to read in an informative Webinar she hosted for Reading Horizons.  I have incorporated some key points and information from Kathleen’s presentation in the text that follows.

As children grow up and are exposed to a verbal language, phonological representations – the way a child hears and speaks words – are formed in the child’s memory.  For deaf readers, sign language can be a visual substitute for a verbal language.  Semantic representations – the different and often multiple meanings and concepts a word can represent – are attached to each phonological (or visual) representation.  This is how children develop a language.  As children attend school and receive instruction, they learn the rules of the language (spelling, punctuation, grammar) and can begin to decode words, learning to read and spell.  This is called orthographic development.

To better understand the importance of language and orthographic development, reading can be broken down into a simple formula:

Reading = Decoding  x  Listening Comprehension

This formula means that in order for a child to become an expert reader, they need the ability to sound out unfamiliar words and then to understand the meaning of the words by comprehending the text they are decoding.  Orthographic development comes into play when discussing word decoding.  Children need explicit and sequential phonetic instruction to be able to successfully decode words that are not already orthographically mapped in their brains.  Once an unfamiliar word is successfully stored, constant reading practice is necessary to help children retain the word and eventually be able to automatically decode it when they encounter it in future reading.

Language development comes into play when discussing listening comprehension.  If children have a well-developed verbal vocabulary, they will be able to comprehend text more easily by making the connection from a printed word to a word and a meaning that they are familiar with as a part of their verbal language. Reading is all about making the connection between written and verbal forms of the language.

However, if the word they just decoded is unfamiliar verbally to the child as well, they will have to use other resources to determine the meaning.  Children can use a dictionary, context clues, knowledge of base words, knowledge of prefixes and suffixes, or even pictures to help figure out what a word means, but it is important to note that pictures should NEVER be used to try and identify an unfamiliar word through guessing what word might make sense in correlation to the picture.  Children must first decode an unfamiliar word and then determine meaning.  Always cue the word before cuing the picture.  Pictures will eventually disappear from text as children grow older, so forming a dependency on pictures will prove to be damaging to a child’s reading skills.

Novice readers use most of their cognitive effort on trying to decode words and miss out on comprehension.  As readers become more fluent and decoding becomes automatic, they are able to focus the majority of their effort on comprehension, using decoding strategies only when they come to an unfamiliar word.  As children are exposed to new vocabulary, their text comprehension will grow, thus allowing the child to develop into an expert reader and well-rounded individual.

Utilizing a multisensory, Orton-Gillingham approach, Reading Horizons offers scientifically-based reading programs that incorporate the tried and true teaching methods of teaching the 42 sounds of the alphabet, five phonetic skills and two decoding skills.  If you'd like to know more about the program, find out here >.