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The Big Five in Reading


Q. Our friends have a third-grader who struggles with reading. They say they wish they had paid more attention to building the foundational skills for reading with him when he was in preschool and kindergarten. What are these foundational skills?


Here are the five basic skills that work together to produce a good reader:


1.    Phonemic awareness - the ability to hear and remember the order of the sounds that the letters make in words.


2.    Phonics - the ability to match the sounds the letters make to the written symbols on a page, and to decode them as words, quickly and accurately.


3.    Comprehension - the ability to understand and remember the concepts read.


4.    Vocabulary - the English language has more than 750,000 words, yet many people have a working vocabulary of just a couple of thousand words. The bigger your vocabulary, the easier it is for you to read and understand, and the farther you'll go in life, because a big vocabulary is the No. 1 correlate of success in life - more tied to success than having rich parents, a big-spending school, experienced teachers, etc.


5.    Fluency - the quick, efficient and accurate decoding of words, read rapidly and with expression with little conscious attention to the task, and high automaticity.


These five skills work together. If you want to have good reading comprehension, you need to have a good vocabulary so that you can understand the words you are reading right off the bat. If you have good phonics skills, you can take on unfamiliar words more readily and that will increase your fluency in reading, without having to think about all the steps it takes to attack a new word.


Probably the most deficient skill among American schoolchildren is, sadly, the first and most important one, phonemic awareness. It's adorable when a 2-year-old asks for "pasketti" for dinner. But when that child is 8 and still can't hear, say or read the syllables right, it's a big problem.


The reason for this is that most schools today try to teach reading with a number of strategies, instead of sticking with the most effective one, which is phonics-only reading instruction. After a few years in a school system that ignores or minimizes phonics, kids simply can't "hear" the sounds the letters make in words any more, and their spelling, pronuniciation and reading comprehension suffer as a result.


About a third of the students in this country will not become fluent readers unless they receive direct, systematic instruction in all the letter-sound combinations and how we put them together or pull them apart in order to read and write.


What can parents and teachers do to promote phonemic awareness? Here are some familiar, but practical, suggestions:


1.       Limit the TV/video games/computer time of any child under age 12 to one hour a day. They are too passive and fail to build the necessary prereading and reading skills your child needs.


2.       Read aloud to your child a half-hour per day from the earliest the child can sit in your lap, until about age 12.


3.       Spend as much time as you possibly can each day talking with your child, preferably face to face, so that your child's experience with listening, responding and interacting can build phonemic awareness and all the other basic skills of reading.

Homework: There's a really good interview with Bob Sweet of the National Right to Read Foundation on


By Susan Darst Williams Reading 04 2008


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