The Components of Learning to Read


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Literacy, or the skill of reading and understanding words, may seem like a fairly straightforward concept. However, literacy is actually multi-faceted, possessing different components which together contribute to a greater overall understanding of literacy. These components of reading – fluency, writing and spelling, and reading comprehension – are each an important facet of literacy and learning to read. As a KOREH L.A. volunteer, you likely already know that every reader is different! Struggling readers may experience difficulties with any or all of these components of literacy, and focusing on any of these components can help to build literacy skills. Our strategies, suggestions, and activities geared towards each different component of literacy can help pinpoint different areas of reading where a struggling reader may need the most help!

Improving Fluency

Reading fluency is the ability to read words quickly, well, and accurately. In order to achieve reading fluency, readers must be able to decode words (match letter and sound combinations together to form a complete word) with precision and speed.

If you find that your student is struggling to decode words, there are specific things you can do to help them.

  • First, make sure to give them plenty of time to decode a word on their own. Try to follow the 4-second rule: if a student is struggling with a word, give them a full 4 seconds to try to sound out the word and figure it out on their own. If the student is unable to pronounce the word after 4 seconds, guide them towards its correct pronunciation and define it or have the student look up the word in the dictionary, if necessary. Once they know the word, have them re-read the sentence to practice their fluency.
  • If your student makes a mistake reading a word, focus their attention on all the letters in the word. Point out the letters they read incorrectly and ask, “Do you remember what sound this letter makes?”
  • Encourage students to watch your lips and mouth as you form certain words or to pay attention to their own lips and tongue while saying a sound.
  • Make sure to engage their senses! Have your student repeatedly trace a letter or word and say it at the same time.
  • Re-read texts to help build fluency and decoding skills.
  • Practice sight words so that your student can focus on learning high-frequency words.
  • Play word-building activities that focus on words with similar patterns. For example, write out a series of rhyming words and vary the initial consonant (mat, fat, sat), then the final consonant (sat, sag, sap), then the vowel (sap, sip).

The goal is that eventually, your student won’t have to expend as much mental energy on the mechanics of reading and can instead focus on the meaning of what they’re reading. If you find that your student has low comprehension for material that they would understand easily if it were read aloud to them, then they are likely struggling with decoding and fluency.

Here are some more suggestions for improving fluency:

  • Let your student choose their own book! Choosing a favorite book or subject can go a long way in enjoyment and will encourage them to work through more difficult sections and passages – it may even encourage re-reading!
  • Make sure that the book is the right level for them. While self-selected reading is important for enjoyment, help guide the reader to choosing a book that is at an appropriate level for their fluency skills and will be productive in helping them build those skills. Visit Choosing Books to learn more about how to select books at the right level for your student.
  • Model expressive reading and pay special attention to punctuation while reading aloud. Don’t be afraid to use silly voices and exaggerate word sounds! This can help words “come to life,” and gives the reader a better understanding of how written language can represent oral language.
  • Read passages aloud together and go over difficult words before reading a text aloud, both to model correct pronunciation and to build a supportive and encouraging environment.

Ask a volunteer: What are some activities I can do during my reading session to help my student practice fluency?

  • Use crossword puzzles in your reading sessions! You can make your own, or the LA Times has a Sunday crossword for kids.
  • Use flashcards for high-frequency / sight words that your student won’t be able to sound out phonetically. You can make games out of the flashcards and keep the flashcards in a decorated “flashcard box” that they can keep at the end of the year.
  • Switch off reading with your student – for example, you read every other page and have them read the rest. When it’s your turn to read, demonstrate fluent reading and how to pause for periods. Make the pause funny or dramatic if necessary.

Writing and Spelling

Though our volunteer sessions typically tend to focus on reading, writing is an important component of building literacy, and practicing writing and spelling can help build some of the skills required for reading. Learning how to write and spell words correctly depends on knowledge of the relationships between sounds and letters, the same skill used in practices such as word decoding and phonemic awareness.

When writing or even just dictating a story, students are also organizing and sequencing ideas and using vocabulary, thereby enhancing their knowledge of narrative structure. These skills will particularly come in handy for reading comprehension and making sense of a text.

Here are some suggestions for encouraging the development of writing and spelling skills:

  • Have your student dictate a story, and write it down for them. An activity called the LEA (Learning Experience Approach) recommends that once you’ve written down their story word for word, type it up at home, then bring it to your next reading session to read through and edit together. Keep repeating this until you have a finished product, then have your student title the story and draw an illustration to go along with it – your student has just written their own story!
  • Have your student read their writing back to you. This builds writing skills, reading skills, and critical thinking.
  • Play oral storytelling games, where you make up a story together and take turns adding to it. You can write the story down, either together, or have your student dictate the story that you come up with together.
  • Practice using a dictionary. If a student comes across a word they don’t know while you are reading together, encourage them to look it up in the dictionary. You can also have them create flashcards to learn the word’s spelling and usage.
  • Emphasize that writing is a process. Demonstrate what planning an outline, drafting, revising, and editing looks like. Play editing games or have them look for edits in their own writing, or write a story together and go through each of the steps.
  • Point out the relationships between words. Pay special attention to different word endings (for example, know vs. knowing vs. knowledge) and how each variation changes the meaning of the word slightly.
  • Find ways to encourage everyday writing opportunities. Ask them to write a letter or note to you, a friend, a teacher, or a parent. Ask them to write down a to-do list, or everything that they need to do for homework. Encourage them to keep a journal or a diary, to get in the habit of using writing as a daily tool.

Encouraging and Developing Reading Comprehension

Though it may not be the first thing that comes to mind when discussing the skill of reading or the acquisition of literacy skills, reading comprehension, or the ability to understand the meaning of what is being read (the meanings of the words, the text as a whole, and its broader implications) is equally as important as fluency, writing, and spelling. Reading comprehension is what allows a reader to process a text and understand its meaning. Broadly, reading comprehension can be split into two areas:

  1. Reading fluency and the accuracy of pronouncing and understanding words.
  2. Oral language comprehension.

Many students who struggle with reading comprehension may be struggling only with one of these parts of comprehension. A way to figure out which part they’re struggling with is to compare their oral language comprehension to their reading comprehension skills. If you’re working with your student and you notice that they have more trouble understanding the story when they’re reading it, but seem to grasp it just fine when they’re listening to you tell the story, then they are struggling with word decoding or fluency. However, if your student also doesn’t understand the story when you’re telling it to them orally, they are struggling with poor oral language comprehension, and need to expand their vocabulary.

Vocabulary development is a critical aspect of comprehension. Young students acquire most of their vocabulary through listening, but as they get older, reading becomes an important source of vocabulary development because there are many words used in text that are not used in everyday conversational language.

Here are some suggestions for working on reading comprehension and vocabulary development:

  • Encourage your student to read a variety of books to increase their vocabulary, and familiarize them with a wide range of text types such as narratives, poetry, and nonfiction.
  • Help your student link what they are reading about with their own experiences. For example, if you are reading a book about animals, perhaps ask your student if they have any pets or have ever been to the zoo. Or, bring a map to your reading session to point out where places are located in the book you just read!
  • If you are working with older students, teach them meanings of prefixes, suffixes, and common roots to aid them in deciphering meaning when they encounter new words.
  • If they come across an unfamiliar word, ask them to make inferences about what the word could mean based on the context.
  • Ask your student to make predictions about where the story is going next and to summarize the story in their own words at the end.
  • Make sure to ask questions! Simple questions such as “What is this character feeling?” and “Would you make the same choice so-and-so did?” can help your student think about the story critically and in terms of themselves and their own lives. Try to avoid questions that can be answered with a single word, and encourage them to think deeply. Don’t be afraid to interrupt the reading with comprehensive questions! Your instincts may tell you that this is disruptive, but actually, it will help to enhance the reading process and encourage the student to engage more meaningfully with the text.

Ask a volunteer: How can I help my student develop his/her reading comprehension and writing skills?

  • Give your student a break from reading – read them a story instead. Pause at key moments of the story and reflect. Ask your student comprehension questions along the way.
  • Cut up comic strips and have your student put the story in the logical order.
  • Sentence builder – cut out words, lay them out on the table, and have your student arrange the words into sentences.
  • Ask your student to tell you a story and write down the story as they tell it, or have them write it if they’re able to. Allow your student to be creative and allow them to make mistakes. Type it up for the next week and edit it together.