How Do Children Read?

Published February 1, 2001

Let’s begin by picturing a child reading a book silently to herself.

She’s just sitting there, fairly motionless, staring at a book.

Occasionally, she turns a page. Sometimes she laughs quietly to herself for no apparent reason. It is a serene and beautiful picture, but only because we know that inside her head, she is exploring a story and listening to the author tell a tale through a voice that only she can hear.

If the child were sitting motionless, occasionally laughing to herself while staring intently at a potted plant, it would be somewhat disturbing, but because she is acting this way with a book in her hands, it’s a Kodak moment.

The silent, motionless act of reading belies the activity happening inside the reader’s head. The symbols on the page are being converted into a meaningful message that the reader understands–a message constructed by an author the reader has probably never met. In the reader’s head, the author’s tale is unfolding word-for-word exactly as the author wrote it, but the reader scarcely moves a muscle.

As the reader sits motionless, she is simultaneously decoding the text and comprehending the message contained within the text. That is what reading is all about: decoding and comprehension. The integration of these two skills is essential to reading, and neither one is more or less essential than the other.

If somebody was kind enough to read the story out loud to her, she would not need to decode it herself. She could sit with her eyes closed, listen to somebody else tell the story, and just focus on comprehending it.

The comprehension she experiences listening to somebody else read aloud is the same comprehension she would experience reading the text silently to herself. There are subtle differences, of course, but essentially, the only thing that makes reading different from listening is the act of decoding the text.

If reading is the product of two cognitive elements–language comprehension and decoding–two questions must be addressed:

  • What is required to be good at understanding language?
  • What is necessary to be good at decoding text?

Examining each of these elements, we find a collection of underlying and interrelated cognitive elements that must be well-developed for a reader to be successful at either comprehending language or decoding.

For the benefit of this analysis, all of the underlying knowledge domains are shown as discrete and distinct cognitive elements, since it is important for reading teachers to understand what these elements are and how they fit in the “big picture” of reading acquisition. However, it also is important for teachers to understand that these elements are all interdependent and interrelated in a child’s head.

Let us return to our child sitting in a comfortable chair, reading silently to herself. We now know that she is decoding the text, quickly and automatically, and she is depending on her language comprehension ability to comprehend the decoded text.

We know that her ability to decode the text depends upon some fundamental, interrelated cognitive elements. Her ability to decode the text is grounded in her understanding of the mechanics of text (concepts about print), her knowledge that spoken words are made up of phonemes (phoneme awareness), her familiarity with the letters in the language (letter knowledge), her knowledge that the letters in the written words represent phonemes (alphabetic principle), and her ability to bring these elements together to decipher regular words.

Further, because she makes a habit of reading and has been exposed to a lot of text, she has been developing her lexical knowledge so that she can recognize and correctly pronounce irregular words. This last element will develop throughout her life as she reads more and more.

We also know that her ability to comprehend the decoded text depends upon her general language comprehension skills, and that her comprehension skills are also supported by a collection of interrelated cognitive elements.

Her language comprehension skills are dependent upon her ability to perceive the phonology of the language, an appreciation for the rules of syntax in the language, and an understanding that words and sentences have meaning (semantics). She uses her background knowledge to elaborate on the information she is gathering, and the information she is gathering, in turn, modifies and enhances her background knowledge.

She is sitting, independently reading a book. As she does so, she is becoming more and more experienced and practiced with text. A few years ago, when she was learning to read, she struggled with decoding the text and connecting that text with meaning. Reading was laborious and unrewarding.

However, somebody motivated her to keep trying and helped her gain the skills she needs to be a reader. Now she decodes words–both regular and irregular words–fluently and automatically, with such ease that she can fully focus her attention on comprehending the text.

Sebastian Wren is a specialist with the Program for the Improvement of Teaching and Learning at the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in Austin, Texas. His email address is [email protected]

Copyright 2000 Southwest Educational Development Laboratory

For more information . . . Sebastian Wren provides an extensive description of the cognitive framework for the reading process, together with instruction tips and assessment tips, in “The Framework Elements,” available at the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory’s Web site for the Reading Coherence Initiative at Wren also provides a helpful reference section that lists source references for the research that supports each element of the cognitive framework.

SEDL’s Web site also offers a Reading Assessment Database, a particularly helpful diagnostic tool for teachers that provides the means to test student skills in each of elements involved in reading comprehension. For example, if a teacher wants to know the availability and cost of tests for phonemic awareness and lexical knowledge, a quick database search provides details of such assessments.