What Good Readers Do

Good readers understand the links between words and their meanings. To do so, they draw on their experiences of the things and concepts in a piece of writing. Good readers also notice other things, outside the text, that help them make sense of the what they’re reading. For instance, they may notice how a piece of writing is being put to use. Is it a news story intended to inform readers? Is it an advertisement? Is it fiction?

Beginning Readers Are on the Way to Becoming Good Readers

Beginning readers are learners on the way to becoming good readers. Almost all beginning readers need instruction from teachers and parapros.

With instruction, these learners come to recognize words. One key part of recognizing words is decoding them. Through decoding, readers recognize the patterns of letters that make up the sounds of words and the words those sounds denote.

Good readers start there and, with instruction and practice, continue to build their decoding skills. Some words don’t follow normal sound rules, so comparing them to typical patterns won’t work as a way to decode them. Try to sound out the word “knight” by saying the sound that each letter makes; listen to the results! For atypical patterns, readers need additional instruction.

As readers become better and better at decoding, their recognition of words becomes almost automatic. Imagine your pantry. After stocking and restocking it for a while, you can usually find the ingredients you’re looking for without much effort. Readers do this with words! Good readers become so skilled at decoding that they achieve sight word recognition. This means that when they see a word, recognizing it requires almost no effort. It’s automatic.

When readers move from word recognition to understanding, they draw on certain skills. They rely on these skills to “make meaning.” Some of these skills are common among all readers. But some are specific to individual readers. For example, two readers may read the same book, but deal with the story differently. That’s because, as Daniel Willingham notes (see the box below), each reader draws on different experiences as he or she makes meaning. Vocabulary and background knowledge as well as reasoning skills are also things readers use to make meaning. Working to expand and refine the right kinds of skills and knowledge also helps students understand what they read.

Experiences Affect Meaning

“Some mental concepts derive meaning not from other mental concepts, but more directly from experience… In the last twenty years, much evidence has accumulated that some representations are grounded—they are defined, at least in part, by our senses or by how we move. For example, when you read the word ‘kick,’ the part of your brain that controls leg movement shows activity, even though you’re not moving your leg.”

(Willingham, 2017, p. 91)

Reading is a specialized skill. And learning to read isn’t natural in the same way as learning to talk. Almost everyone can produce oral sounds. Learning to talk involves listening, mental processing, and making sound. Reading adds sight to the mix, and requires learners to connect shapes, sounds, and concepts. Reading aloud uses our voices too.

Because they have oral language skills, young children can understand written language by listening when an adult or older sibling reads to them. While they are listening, they also notice how adults use books.

This process helps children develop what researchers call print awareness. Print awareness starts with the realization that the symbols on the page actually mean something.

With time, print awareness leads to a knowledge of how to use texts. Some research has shown that children with good print awareness improve at reading faster than their peers with similar vocabularies and other reading skills (Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998). Watching adults use books and listening to them read are important steps in a child’s journey toward becoming a good reader.

Maybe you can see why reading to young children is so important. It helps jumpstart their reading journey by strengthening their oral language vocabulary. When they listen to other people read, children recognize words they already know and begin to learn the meaning of new words.

Some children build on their print awareness by looking at picture books. These books use a few words, and the pictures relate to the words. Young children can understand meaning in books like these, even if they can’t read yet.

With good instruction, children begin to connect images, sounds, and meanings. They learn about the sounds of the English language—what are called “phonemes.” They learn to recognize the 26 letters of the alphabet. A combination of phonemic awareness and print awareness unlocks the most important step: learning the sounds connected to letters. Early readers begin to put these sounds together to create combinations of sounds and then words.