Introduction to teaching reading

Reading is the area in literacy in which the greatest gains are made. This is heartening information for those starting out as literacy tutors. Reading, however, is a very complex skill to develop. Fluent reading is so automatic that the skilled reader is unaware of the many features involved.

Elements of Fluent Reading

The two main components of reading are rapid word recognition and comprehension. We read to understand. The more fluently we are able to read, the more processing capacity is left to spend on comprehending what we are reading. The ability to decode and comprehend text efficiently depends on a number of factors:

Letter knowledge

The letters of the alphabet are confusing to a beginner reader. In order to be able to read, the reader needs to be able to recognise upper and lower case letters and different fonts.


Phonics is the branch of science that deals with spoken sound. To understand a language, one must be able to distinguish and categorise the distinct sounds. Essentially, a person beginning to read needs to understand that speech is made up of a stream of sounds and syllables.

A crucial step in learning to read is the understanding that the letters of the alphabet represent the individual sounds in words. This requires the beginner reader to understand that a word is made up of separate and distinct sounds and that individual letters or strings of letters represent those sounds. For example the word CAT is made up of three sounds C- A-T and is represented by three individual letters. The word CHAT is also made up of three sounds but is represented by four letters, the CH representing one distinct sound. Once a reader understands this principle, it becomes easier to decode text.

Print knowledge

The reader needs to understand how a text works, the direction you start from and the nature of the text being read.  Skilled readers have expectations about the text they are about to read.  The way one might approach reading a flight schedule or a timetable is different from sitting down to read a novel.  Expectations of print only come through reading a wide variety of texts.

Just as we expect to see words appearing in a certain order, we also expect to see letters in order.  We have unconsciously acquired the code and if we saw a sequence ‘dgsumz’ we would be a astonished, but if we saw the word crecious’ we might not be.


Syntax is the structure of a language that allows words to fit together to make phrases and sentences.  Knowing where the verb or subject will appear in the sentence makes it easier to predict what will come next. For example, in the sentence “Patrick limped to the shop” our knowledge of English tells us that limped is the verb and that Patrick got to a shop somehow, even if we don’t quite understand the meaning of the word ‘limped’.


Semantics relates to the meaning of words and sentences. To understand a sentence a reader may have to examine meaning at several different levels simultaneously. For example:  “Can you spell Laurence?”   or “Can you spell, Laurence?”

Background knowledge

Depending on the subject matter and our background knowledge, we approach a passage with a greater or lesser expectation of meaning  The better the frame of reference a person has for the material being read, the easier the piece will be to comprehend.  Background knowledge is about being able to relate one piece of information to another and knowing what is relevant to what you are trying to understand.  In turn, reading new information amends and develops previous information.

How we can use this knowledge to help our students?

Armed with this knowledge, we can apply what we know as follows:

We need to give students material that:

  • Harnesses their needs and interest and their background knowledge.
  • Uses plain English.
  • Conveys information and is relevant.

We need to ensure:

  • That they have a good basic sight vocabulary.
  • That they understand how to decode words through letter-sound correspondence and word pattern.
  • That they have understood what they have read.
  • That they learn to check their own understanding of what they read.


Approaches to teaching reading

The language experience approach uses a student’s own language and grammar to create reading materials.

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Helping students with comprehension

It is hard for the beginner student to read and comprehend at the same time so we recommend you use some of these strategies.

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100 most common words – Dolch list

The Dolch list – these 100 words make up, on average, half of all reading.

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