By now, teachers across the country have heard about the “5 pillars” that are woven together to build and support strong readers. As discussed in my book, Threads of Reading: Literacy Strategies (ASCD, 2004) I believe that there are actually 6 “pillars” that form the weave under efficient and effective readers. As teachers, we must understand how to strengthen and weave all 6 of these threads to build strong and efficient readers.
As young children, we are surrounded by oral language that helps us build an awareness of the sounds of our mother tongue. Even while in the womb, we hear the “lilt” of our language and begin early in life to imitate the sounds we hear all around us. As we grow, we master the various phonemes that make up the syllables and words of our language and we learn to express ourselves orally. This is called “phonemic awareness” and it is an essential skill upon which our reading skills will begin to be woven. As students begin school, they will learn that there is a relationship between the sounds of our language (phonemes) and special symbols or letters (graphemes) that represent those sounds. While English is indeed a complex and often contradictory language, students can learn some basic rules (phonics) that can help them identify or decode unknown words that they encounter throughout their life. These three foundational skills, phonemic awareness, phonics and an ever expanding vocabulary are the foundational threads of an efficient and effective reader.
Once an individual is able to decode the words of the text, s/he is able to focus more attention on the meaning being conveyed.Just as with any other skill, reading requires abundant amount of practice. Reading is a “participation sport” that improves with practice. As we practice, our skill, fluency develops and we are able to read smoothly and accurately. Reading also requires that we make meaning out of the words and sentences on the page. While some children are able to verbalize all of the words on the page, they do not understand what they have read. For this reason, basic comprehension is a vital thread to becoming an efficient and effective reader.
While a reader can have basic comprehension, there is a 6th “pillar” or thread that must be present and that is higher order comprehension. Even as adult readers we never truly “master” the reading of all text. We have all been stumped by unfamiliar vocabulary and content while reading material where we have little background knowledge. For example, remember that legal document you had to sign or the stack of mortgage papers? Unless you have a strong background in either of these areas, you would lose your fluency while reading these documents and your comprehension would go way down to the “basic level.” A skilled lawyer or mortgage broker, on the other hand, would have strong fluency and would have the comprehension skills to assess the ideas and statements in these documents at the analysis, synthesis or interpretive levels. Even though a lawyer or mortgage broker might be proficient with this type of document, there would be other forms of text of a different technical type that would be unfamiliar to them.
When background knowledge and reading comprehension interconnect fluent and efficient reading can take place. It is the level of reading that we want our students to attain especially in light of the requirements of the new Common Core Standards that will soon be required for many states.. Most of a child’s school career is really focused on helping him or her build strong background knowledge and higher order comprehension skills in as many areas as possible. For this reason, understanding that through our life, reading is a ever improving journey. Throughout our lives, we continuously cycle through building vocabulary and background knowledge, improving fluency and enhancing our comprehension. This is the path to fluent and efficient reading..