A child's reading ability can be affected by many factors including background knowledge, ability, home environment, school experiences and interest level. However, pure reading performance is most directly linked to a child's success with five early literacy skills--phonemic awareness, alphabetic principle, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. By understanding and nurturing these five fundamental skills, parents and teachers can better encourage successful reading performance.
Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and orally manipulate the individual sounds that make words. This skill is performed entirely with oral, not written, language. Students with strong phonemic awareness are better prepared to sound out words while reading and more likely to become fluent, proficient readers. Phonemic awareness includes the ability to segment words into individual sounds, blend sounds to produce words, recognize words with sentences, distinguish syllables and identify and produce rhyming words. Phonemic awareness can be a difficult task for young students and must be explicitly taught to early readers.
The alphabetic principle encompasses recognition of letters, an understanding that words are made from individual letters and the ability to connect sounds with letters in print. Working with the alphabetic principle means deciphering the alphabetic code of words. Decoding, or sounding out words, is an essential skill involved with the alphabetic principle. However, the English alphabet is complex and difficult to master. Many letters have more than one possible sound and many sounds have more than one possible letter. Rigorous practice with identifying letters, connecting sounds to the letters and utilizing these skills within words encourages a strong grasp of the alphabetic principle.
Fluency involves the accuracy and speed of a student's reading. A fluent reader is able to read text correctly, quickly and with appropriate voice tone. Gaining fluency makes reading a more pleasurable and less stressful experience for students. Fluent readers are usually able to read almost effortlessly. This allows them to concentrate their efforts on comprehension and vocabulary as opposed to decoding and recognizing words. For a student to become a proficient reader who gains meaning from text, she must first become a fluent reader.
Vocabulary involves gaining meaning from words while reading. Essentially, a student cannot comprehend or construct meaning from text without understanding the words within the passage. A child with strong vocabulary knowledge is able to read more fluently and with more purpose. A child's vocabulary grows daily through conversation, reading, direct instruction and life experiences. Reading aloud to children everyday and explicitly teaching selected words help nurture strong vocabulary knowledge.
Comprehension involves constructing meaning from what is being read. Reading truly has no purpose without comprehension. In order to comprehend text, a reader must actively and intentionally think about and analyze meaning while reading. Good comprehension requires strong abilities in all four of the other fundamental literacy skills. Students must consider many bits of information while reading to comprehend the text such as genre, text structure, the author's purpose and familiar and unfamiliar words. Strong comprehension encourages self-directed learning and lifelong reading.