There is often a long and winding road to reading success for students with learning disabilities. Competent teachers of reading know and understand the five components of reading, why each needs to be explicitly addressed in instruction in a systematic and sequential manner, and how to provide these types of instruction while both encouraging and monitoring a student's progress.

In addition, instruction needs to be ongoing and scheduled frequently enough to foster learning. This is the requisite formula to support these students in overcoming their reading challenges.

Throughout the literature, reading is described as a developmental process. There are long-standing reasons why the teaching of reading is traditionally introduced in first grade.

Around age 6, many of the auditory and visual processing skills involved in reading kick in. These skills include, but are not limited to, left/right orientation, visual and auditory memory, working memory, sequencing, motor skills involved in handwriting, and language development skills needed to comprehend both oral learning and reading comprehension.

Students without reading challenges often learn to read through a developmental process. They are exposed to print in many forms, easily learn new vocabulary through listening and conversation, can easily manipulate the sounds in words, and can generalize letter patterns to decode (read) and encode (spell) unfamiliar words.

Unfortunately, students with reading challenges face many obstacles as they are being taught to read. For these students, reading becomes an arduous, difficult and highly frustrating experience.

Reading and language development are linked tightly and move together across a continuum of skills. There are four major stages of language development: listening, speaking, reading and writing.

Language skills develop in this order and hold true in all languages. Reading also has subcategories and can be separated into five major inter-related language-based components. Developing readers need to have competency in all five components appropriate to age/grade level.

5 components of reading

1. Phonemic awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. This includes rhyming, deleting or adding sounds or syllables to words, and substituting sounds within words.

Importantly, it is phonemic awareness and not intelligence that predicts the ease of learning to read. In the research on reading, phonemic awareness has replaced letter identification as the biggest predictor of reading words.

Extensive reading research has shown that rhyming is an essential skill in learning to read. Recognizing similarities in the sounds of words is a key precursor to recognizing letter patterns within words.

It can be difficult for educators to understand that students with poor phonemic awareness just can't make the auditory and/or visual connections between "bake" and "cake" or "shop" and "ship." As a result, rules for decoding words are not generalized.

Examples of manipulating sounds in words include the following:

  • Say "basketball" without the "ball." Say "basketball" without the "basket."
  • Say "cake" without the "c."
  • Say "cake" and change the "c" to "b."
  • Say "fix" and change the "i" to "o."
  • How many sounds/which sounds do you hear in the word "hug"?

2. Phonics

Phonics is the matching of sounds and letters, also known as sound/letter correspondence or phoneme/grapheme matching. Examples include "c" makes the /c/ sound; "ai" makes the /ā/ sound (long a).

Having the phonemic awareness skills to be able to easily blend sounds together to make a word and segment (or separate) those sounds to spell a word is a precursor to learning and mastering sound/letter matching for word recognition.

These students may look at "mat" and say /m/ /a/ /t/, but that doesn't mean they are able to blend those sounds together to say the word. Sound blending and sound segmentation are required to apply phonics skills and often require specific ongoing instruction and practice.

3. Fluency

Students with reading difficulty often read in a slow and stilted manner. Reading fluency is all too often overlooked in measuring how well a child reads. It is a combined measure of both the speed and the accuracy of reading. This is typically tested by having the child read aloud to ensure that all the words in a selection are actually read and the examiner knows where the errors are occurring.

Fluent reading sounds like spoken language. There are well-established norms for the number of words a child is expected to read per minute according to grade level. Further, poor fluency will negatively impact reading comprehension.

Successful teaching approaches allow for new words to be practiced first in isolation, then within phrases and next within sentences and paragraphs. Teaching of words in isolation does not produce fluency. Increased fluency may require reading and rereading of specific stories or passages.

4. Vocabulary

Fluent reading requires students to expand their vocabularies. Word knowledge and word anticipation are essential to both word recognition and reading comprehension. There are two kinds of vocabulary: receptive (understanding) and expressive (usage).

In "Bringing Words to Life," Isabel Beck et. al. explain that English has over 450,000 words.

Students typically enter first grade with a vocabulary of about 6,000 words. They learn 36,000 words by grade 12, but need 55,000 words for printed school English.

It becomes apparent that students must learn many words that are not specifically taught in school. The best way to do this is through independent reading. The negative implications are obvious for students who are unable or unwilling to do read by themselves.

In addition, it is important to recognize that students need many exposures to a word for it to become a working part of their vocabulary.

5. Comprehension

There are two major types of reading comprehension: literal and inferential. There are many different types of literal and inferential comprehension. An example of literal comprehension is, "The girl is wearing a red dress. What color is her dress?" This involves an understanding of something that is explicitly stated in the text. An example of inferential comprehension is "Why is the girl wearing a red dress?"

Examples of literal comprehension involve understanding details and determining the sequence of events. Examples of inferential comprehension include determining the main idea, drawing conclusions, making predictions and distinguishing between fact and opinion. In the latter instances, the information is implicit and not specifically stated in the text.

The skills of students with learning disabilities can be variable on comprehension tasks, and it depends on their language competencies. Of course, difficulty with word recognition and decoding unfamiliar words will impact comprehension.

When giving a diagnosis of reading comprehension difficulty, it is always useful to tease out whether word recognition difficulty or vocabulary knowledge has created the comprehension difficulty.

Similarly, for students with learning disabilities, it is crucial that an educator assess comprehension from a variety of perspectives. Comprehension is more than answering multiple-choice questions or providing one-word answers.

There are learning disabled students who can answer the multiple-choice questions correctly but, for example, can't perform when asked for a summary of what they've read. The links between multiple language skills and comprehension should be explored when considering comprehension of text.

Instruction matters

Finally, instruction matters. There are big differences between developmental reading models and instruction for students with reading issues.

It is helpful for teachers of reading to think about each of the five reading components: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension as they plan and provide instruction:

  • Appropriate reading instruction addresses all five components of reading, because it's not just about word recognition and not just about comprehension.
  • For learning to be maximized, the student receives a precise diagnosis of language and reading difficulties with corresponding instruction in both language development and reading.
  • Students require opportunities for practicing newly learned skills in consecutive text
  • Instruction in all five areas must be systematic, supportive, explicit and intensive
  • Mastery learning is the goal, and ongoing review and repetition is necessary for mastery of skills

The road to reading may be long and winding for students with reading challenges. Teachers of reading who address the five major areas of reading in instructional practice can help these students find the shortcuts, avoid the detours and, ultimately, be successful and competent readers.