How Do Children Read?

How Do Children Read?
February 1, 2001

Let's begin by picturing a child reading a book silently to herself.

She's just sitting there, fairly motionless, staring at a book.

Occasionally, she turns a page. Sometimes she laughs quietly to herself for no
apparent reason. It is a serene and beautiful picture, but only because we know that
inside her head, she is exploring a story and listening to the author tell a tale
through a voice that only she can hear.

If the child were sitting motionless, occasionally laughing to herself while staring
intently at a potted plant, it would be somewhat disturbing, but because she is
acting this way with a book in her hands, it's a Kodak moment.

The silent, motionless act of reading belies the activity happening inside the reader's
head. The symbols on the page are being converted into a meaningful message that
the reader understands--a message constructed by an author the reader has probably
never met. In the reader's head, the author's tale is unfolding word-for-word exactly
as the author wrote it, but the reader scarcely moves a muscle.

As the reader sits motionless, she is simultaneously decoding the text and
comprehending the message contained within the text. That is what reading is all
about: decoding and comprehension. The integration of these two skills is essential
to reading, and neither one is more or less essential than the other.

If somebody was kind enough to read the story out loud to her, she would not need
to decode it herself. She could sit with her eyes closed, listen to somebody else tell
the story, and just focus on comprehending it.

The comprehension she experiences listening to somebody else read aloud is the
same comprehension she would experience reading the text silently to herself.
There are subtle differences, of course, but essentially, the only thing that makes
reading different from listening is the act of decoding the text.

If reading is the product of two cognitive elements--language comprehension and
decoding--two questions must be addressed:

  • What is required to be good at understanding language?
  • What is necessary to be good at decoding text?

Examining each of these elements, we find a collection of underlying and
interrelated cognitive elements that must be well-developed for a reader to be
successful at either comprehending language or decoding.

For the benefit of this analysis, all of the underlying knowledge domains are shown
as discrete and distinct cognitive elements, since it is important for reading teachers
to understand what these elements are and how they fit in the "big picture" of
reading acquisition. However, it also is important for teachers to understand that
these elements are all interdependent and interrelated in a child's head.

Let us return to our child sitting in a comfortable chair, reading silently to herself.
We now know that she is decoding the text, quickly and automatically, and she is
depending on her language comprehension ability to comprehend the decoded

We know that her ability to decode the text depends upon some fundamental,
interrelated cognitive elements. Her ability to decode the text is grounded in her
understanding of the mechanics of text (concepts about print), her knowledge that
spoken words are made up of phonemes (phoneme awareness), her familiarity
with the letters in the language (letter knowledge), her knowledge that the letters in
the written words represent phonemes (alphabetic principle), and her ability to
bring these elements together to decipher regular words.

Further, because she makes a habit of reading and has been exposed to a lot of text,
she has been developing her lexical knowledge so that she can recognize and
correctly pronounce irregular words. This last element will develop throughout her
life as she reads more and more.

We also know that her ability to comprehend the decoded text depends upon her
general language comprehension skills, and that her comprehension skills are also
supported by a collection of interrelated cognitive elements.

Her language comprehension skills are dependent upon her ability to perceive the
phonology of the language, an appreciation for the rules of syntax in the language,
and an understanding that words and sentences have meaning (semantics). She
uses her background knowledge to elaborate on the information she is gathering,
and the information she is gathering, in turn, modifies and enhances her background

She is sitting, independently reading a book. As she does so, she is becoming more
and more experienced and practiced with text. A few years ago, when she was
learning to read, she struggled with decoding the text and connecting that text with
meaning. Reading was laborious and unrewarding.

However, somebody motivated her to keep trying and helped her gain the skills she
needs to be a reader. Now she decodes words--both regular and irregular words--fluently and automatically, with such ease that she can fully focus her attention on
comprehending the text.

Sebastian Wren is a specialist with the Program for the Improvement of Teaching
and Learning at the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in Austin,
Texas. His email address is

Copyright 2000 Southwest Educational Development Laboratory

For more information . . . Sebastian Wren provides an extensive description of the
cognitive framework for the reading process, together with instruction tips and
assessment tips, in "The Framework Elements," available at the Southwest
Educational Development Laboratory's Web site for the Reading Coherence
Initiative at
Wren also provides a helpful reference
section that lists source references for the research that supports each element of the
cognitive framework.

SEDL's Web site also offers a Reading Assessment Database, a particularly helpful
diagnostic tool for teachers that provides the means to test student skills in each of
elements involved in reading comprehension. For example, if a teacher wants to
know the availability and cost of tests for phonemic awareness and lexical
knowledge, a quick database search provides details of such assessments.