Reading: It Comes in Stages

Child reading

Reading can sometimes appear to be an overnight skill, and there are even children who “teach themselves” to read before they reach the first grade. Often, it is a wonder that kids enter one grade with minimal letter knowledge and leave reading books on their own. It has been my experience that the skill of reading is often taken for granted. I was a quick reader (one of those annoying overnight type learners), but my sister struggled every step of the way. Now, as I work with children in early elementary school who are having difficulty with this skill, I have learned more and more to appreciate how tricky it is and how many skills go into the act of reading.

To better understand the process of learning to read, and to appreciate the lengths we’re pushing children every time we sit down with a story, I have listed the multiple steps of reading below:

  • First, kids see symbols and associate a symbol with an item- in simple terms, it’s like all of us recognizing those “golden arches” as a potential snack, drink, or rest break while driving on the highway.
  • Next, letters are identified.
  • Then, not only are  letters  identified, but they are also associated with the sounds they create in words (if we’re talking vowels, that list is LONG, whereas for consonants it’s typically only two or so- the hard and soft ‘g’ for example). Children at this stage are called “decoders.” That means they’re taking every letter and painstakingly identifying it, associating a sound, and blending one to the next and so on. I imagine the inner monologue of a six year old learning the skill to be something like this: “oh, that’s a B, b makes buh, ok and next is u, u can be you or uh….let’s see what comes next, g, ok g can say jee or guh, let’s put it together, boooj…no, buuug, no BUG, that’s it.” It’s no wonder that kids at this stage can sometimes get through a whole page, without a clue as to the meaning of the words. Their full attention was on decoding, not comprehending.
  • Some kids are wonderful decoders from the beginning; they have great sound and letter awareness and quickly make the leap to the next step, which involves “chunking” sounds together. Most importantly, kids must learn to chunk vowels which commonly occur together (like the ‘oa’ in boat and the ‘oo’ in boot). They also learn to recognize common words on sight, rather than expending effort fully decoding every word. At this stage, children sound much more fluent and less halting, and their intonation begins to match the meaning of sentences. This is because they are able to spend less energy on decoding and more energy on comprehension.
  • Even beyond this stage of an apparently competent reader, demands are increased – most notably in third grade. Children in third grade are expected to make the switch from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” That is often why children who fared well in early grades bump into difficulty in third and fourth grade “out of nowhere.” It is likely that their reading skills just have not developed to the point where they are now a tool to support learning, as opposed to a developing skill.

Support your kids’ reading skills- practice makes perfect and support makes practice bearable! Seek out assistance or evaluation if you feel your child could benefit. I feel (and I hope many agree) that it’s better to be proactive than reactive in literacy learning, so that reading can be a pleasurable pastime rather than a dreaded task.

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