What is reading?

Reading is a multi-faceted process of making meaning from text.  When we read print, one of the things we do is to decode the linguistic message from symbols on a page that represent our speech, with enough fluency to understand the intended message.

Our verbal message is broken down into words. Those words are broken down into sounds, and then those s…ou…n…d…s are CODED into visual marks on a document. When we read, we must DECODE those marks back into sounds… and those sounds into words… and those words back into a message. The following table presents some of the building blocks of decoding, from the research of Kenn Apel.

Five Blocks of Word Study for Spelling and Word Reading

Phonemic Awareness must be able to ‘hear’ the sounds within a word to make the relationship between sounds and letters, ie, ‘though’ has 2 sounds
Orthographic pattern Awareness must be able to make a connection between the sounds and the symbol for that sound, ie, though- 2 sounds-th symbolizes first sound-ough symbolizes second sound
Morphological Awareness aware that changes in morphology change the way a word is pronounced in order to acquire meaning,

eg, music-music ian-musician

Semantic Awareness eg. sea vs see vs C
Mental Graphemic Representations eg. visual memory of ‘ough’ representing ‘o’ sound in word ‘though’, ‘ough’ representing ‘oo’ sound in word ‘through’, ‘ough’ representing ‘aw’ sound in the word ‘bought’

Reading, however, requires much more than just decoding. When we attempt to access formal texts, we also rely on our ability to:

  • access background knowledge (e.g., vocabulary, concepts, world knowledge),
  • understand text structures (e.g., distinguish between narrative and expository),
  • use comprehension strategies (e.g. visualizing, questioning, summarizing),

Motivation is also a key factor, especially with older students and adolescents.

How is reading different from listening?

Making meaning from a text requires different skills and strategies depending on what type of text is being read (visual, audio, print, etc.).  However, when the content of a printed text is simply transferred to a different format (for example, from print on paper to braille), many of the same skills and strategies noted above (accessing background knowledge, etc.) are still needed to make meaning. When a text is read aloud to a student, rather than read independently, the primary difference is in the practice of word recognition (i.e., decoding). When a student experiences a challenge with reading, he or she may still be able to understand the content, if the words are decoded for him / her. For further information about print-based reading difficulties, please see What is a print disability?

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The Language Bases of Reading Comprehension:
insights for assessment and instruction

This page was written in collaboration with Sandra Amyot, Speech-Language Pathologist, Lester B. Pearson School Board and Susan Waite, Speech-Language Pathologist, English Montreal School Board.  Speech-Language Pathologists have valuable expertise to share with teachers on decoding, and on the differences between reading and listening.