Using the Threads of Reading to Support Strong Readers

Teachers have heard about the “5 pillars” that are woven together to build and support strong readers. These pillars are: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension (National Literacy Panel Report, 2008).

As discussed in my book, The Threads of Reading: Strategies for Literacy Development (ASCD) I believe that there are actually 6 “pillars” that form the weave under efficient and effective readers.

I believe that the 5 foundational pillars identified by the National Literacy Panel are essential to foundational reading. However, I see a difference between basic comprehension and higher order comprehension.

As teachers, we must understand how to strengthen and weave all 6 of these threads to build strong and efficient readers.

Learning to Read as Young Children

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. These foundational skills are what help children become strong readers.

toddler laying on a bed reading a book
Learning to Read Expands a Child’s Vocabulary

Supporting Strong Readers with Decoding Skills

Once an individual is able to decode the words of the text, they are 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.

When children are concentrating on decoding the words on the page, it is difficult for them to also attend to meaning. For this reason, in order to become a competent reader, young children must master decoding skills.

Basic comprehension is a vital thread to becoming an efficient and effective reader.

Learning to Make Deeper Levels of Meaning

When a reader is able to apply basic comprehension to a text they are reading, they are able to answer the simple questions of who, what, where, why and how.

While this is a necessary foundational skill for making meaning, it does not mean that students can analyze or reflect on the text at more complex levels. 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.

Without background knowledge in this content, your comprehension would go down to the “basic level.” A skilled lawyer or mortgage broker, on the other hand, would have strong fluency with this content.

As a result of their prior background knowledge and familiarity with this type of text, These individuals would have the comprehension skills to assess the ideas and statements in these documents.

They could even read 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 – say a scientific journal text – that they might struggle with when attempting to read the material.

This would be true even though they are proficient readers of complex text within their own discipline.

When background knowledge and reading comprehension interconnect, fluent and efficient reading can take place.

Supporting Strong Readers Through Reflection

It is this complex level of reading that we want our students to attain. Students must be able to analyze, synthesize and make meaning at deeper levels of understanding.

These are the skills they will need for success in college and career.

Most of a child’s school career is really focused on helping them build strong background knowledge. They need to apply their background knowledge and higher order comprehension skills in as many areas as possible.

Throughout our life, we continue to grow and expand as thoughtful and reflective readers.

As we build our own life experiences, we enrich and expand our vocabulary and background knowledge. With more knowledge, our fluency grows. We are able to process different types of text with increasing comprehension.

By continuing to read and expand our world knowledge we become more fluent and thoughtful readers.

To learn more about the 6 pillars of reading, check out The Threads of Reading: Strategies for Literacy Development at your favorite bookseller today.

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