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Table of Contents


14 Cognitive Elements of Reading
- 1. Reading Comp.
- 2. Language Comp.
- 3. Background
- 4. Linguistic
- 5. Phonology
- 6. Syntax
- 7. Semantics
- 8. Decoding
- 9. Cipher
- 10. Lexical
- 11. Phoneme
- 12. Alphabetic
- 13. Letter
- 14. Concepts

Reading Assessment Techniques

Research Evidence

Using the Framework



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Glossary of reading terms

Instructional Resources - Literary References

Instructional Resources - Instructional Activities

Cognitive Elements of Reading

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 she was 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 that she 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, 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 interrelated cognitive elements that must be well developed to be successful at either comprehending language or decoding. This text will examine both language comprehension and decoding, along with the subordinate cognitive elements that underlie each. All of these underlying knowledge domains will be described as discrete and distinct cognitive elements, but only for the benefit of this examination. It is important for reading teachers to understand what these elements are and how they fit in the "big picture" of reading acquisition, but it is also important for teachers to understand that these elements are all interdependent and interrelated in a child’s head.

Let us begin this examination of the cognitive processes involved in reading acquisition where the child begins — with Language Comprehension.

Language Comprehension

Visual Map of the Cognitive Elements of ReadingLanguage comprehension generally refers to one's ability to understand speech (there are other forms of language, but for the sake of the current conversation, we will only consider speech). It is important to remember that language is not at all generic. There are different "levels" of language. Adults do not speak to children the way they speak to other adults; stories for adults are aimed at a "higher level" than stories for children.

Further, there are different types of language. Language can be informal, as it often is in routine discourse among friends and family, or it can be formal, as it often is in classroom environments. Informal language for young children is usually very context dependent; the conversation typically focuses on information that is immediately relevant and often concrete. Formal language, on the other hand, is often decontextualized and abstract (e.g., asking a child to retell a story or to consider the perspective of a character in a story). Some children have more experience with formal language than others, and naturally, this gives them an advantage in formal classroom learning environments.

It is also worth noting that there are different types and levels of language comprehension. The most mundane form is explicit comprehension—the listener merely understands what is explicitly stated. The listener may not draw any inferences or elaborate on what is said, but at least the listener understands what is specifically stated.

A more elaborate form of language comprehension builds inferential understanding on top of explicit comprehension. Sometimes, in order to truly understand language, the listener must consider the context in which communication is taking place. Sometimes, one needs to "read between the lines" and draw inferences. Sometimes, these inferences are context dependent, meaning that it is necessary to consider the speaker and the audience. Consider the following statements out of context: "My car broke down the other day, and it’s going to cost $2000 to fix! This couldn’t have come at a worse time, either. Bob Junior needs braces, and Mary hasn’t been able to work very many hours recently."

Out of context, this person seems only to be seeking sympathy. However, what would you think about these statements if you knew that this person was speaking to his boss? He never says it explicitly, but it is obvious that he is asking for a raise. In real communication, sometimes the true message is never explicitly stated—the listener must deduce the speaker’s intent behind the message.

For language to work, it is assumed that both the speaker and the listener are cooperating in their communication: The speaker is attempting to convey only the information that is relevant and interesting for the listener; the listener is trying to ascertain the important and relevant message that the speaker is conveying.

The context, the nature of the discourse, the speaker’s underlying intent — these and many other factors are important to comprehension. Often, what is not said is as important to the communication as what is said. Consider these quotes taken from actual performance evaluations used by the military to determine qualifications for promotion:

  • "He is inquisitive, and his wife is charming."
  • "I am quite confident that he has many admirable qualities."
  • "His performance under my command has never once dropped below average."

Are there hidden messages in these evaluations? None of these evaluations are particularly negative or derogatory, but the very fact that they are not laudatory speaks volumes. In these evaluations, the speaker is trying not to explicitly say something, and hopefully, the listener will hear what the speaker is trying so hard not to say.

More than just an appreciation for the social context of communication and the ability to draw inferences, language comprehension involves a general awareness that the purpose of communication is to coherently convey information. Children need to develop an understanding of different genres, voices, perspectives, and styles. Children also need to understand how those elements may reflect the intent of the speaker, author, or storyteller, and how those elements affect the underlying meaning of communication. Young children typically do not have a well-developed appreciation of the pragmatics of speech, and teachers must often draw their attention to these comprehension skills explicitly.

It is also relevant to note that, particularly in the Southwest United States, sometimes there are cross-language issues related to language comprehension. A child’s native language may be Spanish, and she may have high levels of understanding in Spanish, but if she is in a classroom in the United States, her language comprehension is most likely being assessed in English.

Language comprehension in this context, then, refers to the child’s ability to understand and draw inferences from speech that is in a language the child understands, and that is at a level the child should be able to understand. If a child is expected to read English text, the child must understand spoken English adequately. If the child does not speak English, the text will be more meaningful if it is written in the language the child does speak and at a level she understands.

The importance of connecting the child's spoken language to the text is paramount, but it is frequently overlooked when assessing the reading instruction needs of children. This is not just a concern when addressing the needs of students who are learning English as a second language, or addressing the needs of children who speak a non-standard dialect of English. This is a concern that every reading teacher of every child should be aware of. Some children—English speaking children—grow up in an impoverished linguistic environment. Despite the fact that English is their native language, their language comprehension skills are underdeveloped. Furthermore, explicit instruction aimed at developing linguistic comprehension usually takes a back seat to explicit instruction of text-awareness or decoding skills in the classroom. The balance is important, and reading teachers need to consciously maintain that balance.

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Visual Map of the Cognitive Elements of ReadingThe second important element underlying reading comprehension is decoding, which generically refers to the child’s ability to recognize and process written information. While that may sound straightforward, it should be noted that children may try many different, often inappropriate decoding strategies before they become skilled decoders.

Initially, children learn that certain symbols "stand for" concepts, but these symbols are highly contextualized. For example, many children recognize the golden arches of McDonald’s restaurants—these children recognize that the golden arches represent a concept, which, in this case is food that they would like to eat. This is sometimes called "environmental print reading," and, although it signals that the child is on the road to literacy, it is not the same as "decoding." In this case, the symbols and words the child recognizes depend upon their context for recognition. The child may recognize the word "milk" when it is written on the milk carton, but does not recognize that same word when it is in a storybook. Similarly, a child may recognize the word, "McDonald’s" when it is accompanied by the golden arches, but may be unable to recognize it out of that context.

Farther along the road to decoding, children typically develop the ability to recognize certain high-frequency and familiar words. This is sometimes called "sight-word reading." It involves the child memorizing the shape of each whole word, or some unique feature in each word, and recognizing it when it comes up in print. This approach works only for a very short time—children can only memorize so many words, and as their "sight vocabulary" grows, their capacity for learning new words diminishes. They tend to confuse words and forget words. Sight-word readers are limited to the words that they have memorized—they can not make sense of unfamiliar words, and can not read text that is comprised of words outside of their sight vocabulary.

As emergent readers become more advanced, they learn how to use the conventions of written English to "sound out" or "decipher" words. This approach is generative, which means there is no limit to the number of words that can be created or read by those with this ability. Consequently, young readers who can decipher words can make sense of words they have never encountered before in print.

Unfortunately, in English, there is more to decoding than using the conventions of written English to decipher words. In English, virtually every spelling-sound convention has exceptions—English would make more sense if "one" sounded like "own" and if "too" did not sound like "two," but in English, there are a host of words whose correct pronunciations violate the conventions of English spelling-sound relationships in some way. To become an expert decoder, a child needs to learn to decipher words, but further, the child needs to begin learning how to correctly identify irregular or exception words.

It is important to note that learning irregular words is a process that develops throughout a reader's life. Even adult readers come across new words that are not pronounced the way they are spelled. (How do you pronounce "calliope"?) However, it is reasonable to say that readers are decoding text appropriately if they are correctly recognizing irregular or exception words within their vocabulary and pronouncing unfamiliar words in a way consistent with the conventions of written English.

The elements that support language comprehension and decoding

We have described reading comprehension as the product of decoding skills and language comprehension skills—both of which depend upon more fundamental cognitive elements. Each of these elements is worth examining in some detail.

Language comprehension and the cognitive elements that support it

Children learn their native language relatively easily—they do not need much in the way of explicit instruction to learn basic communication skills. Unless they are severely deprived of opportunities to experience their language, almost all children develop those functional communication skills long before they enter school. This process of language acquisition starts very early—in fact, there is evidence that children begin learning about certain aspects of language while still in the womb. After they are born, children naturally practice and experiment very actively with language.

Despite children’s natural tendencies to actively learn their native language, language skill instruction should not be neglected in the classroom. Some children need to be taught some aspects of language formally and explicitly. Children may need little formal instruction to be able to communicate basic needs, but for academic success in a formal learning environment, children need to be versed in certain aspects of formal language, decontextualized language, and metalinguistic knowledge.

It is rare to find children whose language experiences are so impoverished that their language development is inadequate for basic communication, but it is not uncommon to find children who are not prepared to deal with the formal, decontextualized language used in classrooms. Some children are raised in homes where more formal, decontextualized language is common, and their early experiences with formal language prepare them for the more formal learning environment of a classroom. However, other children do not benefit from such rich and diverse language experience. While their language experience is typically adequate for basic expression and typical discourse, they are at a disadvantage when trying to function in academic settings.

Teachers should make no assumptions about their students’ language comprehension skills. They should know that the children in their classes do not necessarily come from similar linguistic environments and may not have approximately equal language development. Every child’s language skills need to be assessed, and areas of need should be addressed.

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Background knowledge

Visual Map of the Cognitive Elements of ReadingTo have strong language comprehension skills, children must know about the world in which they live, and must have elaborate background knowledge that is relevant to what they are trying to understand. This knowledge is more sophisticated than mere facts or word definitions—it is a reference base for personal experiences, scripts, and schemas that help those children understand how the world works.

To really understand and appreciate a story, children need to know more than the definitions of words in the story; they need to have a frame of reference so they can make sense of the plot.

Children learn by comparing new information against information they already have in their heads—and that information must be relevant to the story they are listening to. "Casey at the bat," for instance, makes more sense to people who are familiar with baseball, and teaching children about baseball will help them to appreciate "Casey at the bat." This point seems trivially obvious, but the issue is raised here to emphasize a non-trivial point—not all children have the same background knowledge. Children can not understand what is being said to them if they do not share some background knowledge with the speaker. Likewise, they cannot understand a story if they do not have some background knowledge related to the topic of the story.

Similarly, children depend on life experiences to develop schemas and scripts about how the world should work. Certain events are more likely to happen at a baseball game than at a restaurant, and events typically take place in a certain order or sequence. We depend on our internal schemas and scripts to help us organize and anticipate events in a story.


Instruction tip: Typically, the problem that children have with comprehension is not that they lack knowledge in a general sense—the problem is that the knowledge that they do have is not relevant to what they are trying to understand. You can either provide background knowledge relevant to activities (e.g., before telling stories about a zoo, the class could take a field trip to the zoo), or you can search for stories that are relevant to the knowledge you know the children already have (making the classroom materials relevant to the backgrounds and cultures of the students).

Assessment tip: It is safe to assume that all children have knowledge, but it is not safe to assume that the knowledge they have is relevant to a particular activity. Before starting an activity, sample the children's knowledge about the content of the activity with some informal questions.


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Linguistic Knowledge

Visual Map of the Cognitive Elements of ReadingLanguages are composed of sounds that are assembled to form words, which are combined to form sentences, which are arranged to convey ideas. Each of these processes is constrained and governed by linguistic rules. An implicit knowledge of their structure and their integration is essential to language comprehension. Three basic elements come together to support linguistic knowledge:

  • To understand language, one must be able to hear, distinguish and categorize the sounds in speech (phonology).

  • One needs to be implicitly familiar with the structure that constrains the way words fit together to make phrases and sentences (syntax).

  • One must be able to understand the meaning of individual words and sentences being spoken and the meaningful relations between them (semantics).

Linguistic knowledge depends upon all three elements being synthesized rapidly and fluently. Each of these elements can be examined in some detail.

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Visual Map of the Cognitive Elements of ReadingTo understand spoken language, a child must be able to hear and distinguish the sounds that make up the language. Virtually every child raised in a normal linguistic environment has the ability to distinguish between different speech sounds in her native language. Almost all native English speakers can therefore hear the difference between similar English words like "grow" and "glow." When children produce these words themselves, however, they may not be able to articulate distinctly enough for others to hear the distinction. Difficulty with articulation does not imply difficulty with perception.

Hearing the difference between similar sounding words such as "grow" and "glow" is easy for most children, but not for all children. Some children are raised in homes where English is not spoken, or where non-standard dialects of English are spoken. Likewise, some children suffer auditory trauma or ear infections that affect their ability to hear speech. Any child who is not consistently exposed to English phonology may have difficulty perceiving the subtle differences between English phonemes. Obviously, children who are not able to hear the difference between similar-sounding words like "grow" and "glow" will be confused when these words appear in context, and their comprehension skills will suffer dramatically.


Instruction tip: Children usually have problems articulating certain sounds, but even though they may say the words inappropriately, they can usually hear the differences when somebody else speaks. In other words, they do not have a problem with phonology; they have a problem with articulation. You can address this problem when a child says a word incorrectly by parroting what the child said back to the child in the form of a question. If the child says, "I want to go pray outside," ask the child, "You want to go pray outside?" The child with normal phonologic skills will repeat herself, emphasizing the indistinct word, and try to make you understand what she is trying to say.

Assessment tip: Play the "same or different" game. Generate pairs of words that are either identical or that differ in a subtle way. Say them out loud and ask the child if they are the same or different. Children should rarely miss the ones that are different. If the child misses more than just a few, consult with a speech therapist or an audiologist.


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Visual Map of the Cognitive Elements of ReadingIn German, the main verb typically comes at the end of a clause. In Romance languages, adjectives typically follow the noun. Different languages have different rules of syntax that constrain the way words and phrases can be arranged. In another language, the sentence, "Billy has a black dog" might be written, "A dog black Billy has." However, the rules of English syntax prohibit us from rearranging the words in sentences haphazardly. The way that words are arranged in English sentences has a fairly stringent structure, and one does not need to be able to formally diagram sentences to understand that structure implicitly.

The stringent structure of English syntax is not accidental. Syntax provides some meaning and helps minimize ambiguity. Consider these actual newspaper headlines:

  • "Enraged Cow Injures Farmer with Ax"
  • "Two Sisters Reunited after 18 Years in Checkout Counter"
  • "New York Police Kill Man with Hammer"

All of the words make sense, but the poor syntax makes the sentences ambiguous. People who have a limited appreciation for English syntax may not understand why these sentences are confusing.

Syntax can also help people figure out meanings for unfamiliar words. For example, consider the sentence, "I fell asleep while waiting for Mary to return from the tembal." Your knowledge of English syntax helps you to develop some ideas about what "tembal" might mean, but if you were not familiar with English syntax, you might not even know that "tembal" is a noun.

The fact that the rules of syntax change from language to language can confuse people learning English as a second language. However, again, this is not exclusively a problem for second language learners. Children who come from impoverished linguistic environments are usually comfortable only with very simple syntactic structure. Unfortunately, without a moderately sophisticated implicit understanding of the rules of syntax, language comprehension is severely limited for these children, especially when they are expected to work in more formal linguistic settings like schools.


Instruction tip: Invite the class to sit outside in a circle on the grass. Ask them to close their eyes and listen. Remain silent. After a few seconds, ask students what they heard. The activity may need to be repeated several times for children to become comfortable with the activity. Initially, ask students to tell you what they heard in simple sentences. Example: "I heard a bird." "I hear a dog barking." Later, ask students to describe what they heard in more complex syntax ("First I heard a bird, then I heard a dog barking, and the whole time, I could hear the wind blowing.").

Assessment tip: A cloze assessment can be modified to assess syntax. Give students sentences with selected words missing, and ask them to supply syntactically appropriate words. Remember, there is no single correct answer in this type of assessment: The child's response may not make sense, yet still may be syntactically correct. For example, the sentence, "Mark lifted a _____ over his head" can be completed with any noun or noun phrase — "train" "pillow" or "dream" could all fit there. For young children, this test should be presented orally.


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Visual Map of the Cognitive Elements of ReadingThe ultimate goal of language is to convey meaning. While phonology carries information that makes spoken words distinct, and syntax constrains the arrangement of words in language, semantics refers to the information contained within the language. Semantics is a global term that collectively describes meaning at three different levels of language; the discourse / sentence level, the vocabulary level, and the morphology level.

Semantics at the discourse / sentence level

The celebrated linguist, Noam Chomsky, coined the sentence, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously," to illustrate the fact that phonology and syntax can be preserved even in the absence of semantics. The words in the sentence are composed of speech sounds found in English (otherwise, the words themselves would not make sense), and the sentence is syntactically correct (the words sound right together), but the sentence is not semantically acceptable.

Artificial, meaningless sentences like Chomsky’s do not come up often in typical conversation, but children often face real sentences that do not make sense to them. To understand or gain meaning from speech, a listener must examine meaning at several different levels simultaneously. At the more global level, meaning can be examined at the level of discourse, sentences, and phrases. As Chomsky’s sentence illustrates, it is possible to combine meaningful words in meaningless ways, but this is not typically a problem. People do not make a habit of producing meaningless sentences deliberately. More typically, when meaning breaks down at this global level, it is because a sentence has meaning for one person but not for another. (Or the sentence may mean something different for another person.) Similarly, meaning may break down at the global levels because certain statements or sentences do not fit appropriately in the discourse. If two people are discussing literature, and one of them interjects a non sequitur about baseball, the other may wonder if she has missed some part of the conversation.

Semantics at the vocabulary level

Meaning can also be examined at the level of the individual word (vocabulary). If you were learning a foreign language, and you knew only the most basic words for communication, you would certainly have difficulty understanding a native speaker. If you have studied the language, you might understand a few of the words, and you might try to piece the words you know together to get the gist of the communication. You would be attempting to assemble meaning at the sentence or phrase level, but you really would not have much confidence in your understanding. You would probably perform poorly if you were tested on your comprehension, especially if you did not understand some of the words in the test. To understand speech, you have to understand most of the words that are spoken. (It is worth noting that while you can infer the meaning of a few words from context, you must understand most of the words in order to build that context.)

Children face this bewildering problem every day—people are constantly using words around them that they do not understand. New vocabulary is introduced on a daily basis. The average student learns about eight new words per day (3,000 words per year) for the first few years of formal education.

Semantics at the morphology level

The third and most basic level of meaning analysis is morphology, or the meaning of word parts. A morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit of speech, so a single word may contain more than one morpheme (e.g., the word "smallest" has two morphemes, "small" and "est"—each part has meaning). A child’s vocabulary is greatly enriched when the child learns to examine the structure of words—to examine words at the morpheme level. The child learns that words with common roots have common meanings, and that affixes influence the meaning of a word in specific ways. Children use their understanding of morphology to learn new words, and when they learn to read, a good understanding of morphology helps children spell and pronounce words correctly (helping them understand why "doing" does not rhyme with "boing").


Instruction tip: The ultimate goal with semantics is to have children pay attention to meaning at the sentence or discourse level. This requires a strong vocabulary and an appreciation for morphology, but semantics goes beyond simply "knowing words." As you work with children, ask them to focus on meaning at different levels. Ask them to break words down and examine the meanings of the morphemes. Ask them to provide synonyms and definitions for words in context. But, further, teach them to examine the meaning of sentences embedded in stories. Teach them to use context to guess the meanings of unknown words and to look for the logical structure of stories.

Assessment tip: Like all of the elements under Language Comprehension, assessments in semantics are more valid if they are given orally. One way to test semantics is to ask children to look for logical inconsistencies in stories. Create sentences and stories that contain logical flaws (e.g., Mark liked to go for walks with Mary because he enjoyed being alone.) Then ask them to detect the logical inconsistencies.


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Decoding and the Cognitive Elements that Support it

Visual Map of the Cognitive Elements of ReadingThe problem of learning to read, as stated previously, is made up of two equally important components: language comprehension and decoding. Even among children who have adequate language comprehension skills, there are children who have difficulty reading because they have only mastered one of the two components. Just as some children are fortunate to be raised in environments rich in language experiences, some children are fortunate to be raised in homes surrounded by literature and text. Usually, these environments are one in the same—but not always. Some children, for example, come from cultures with rich storytelling traditions, but with limited use of text and writing. There are many children who are only rarely exposed to text in their household—these children may enter school with only scant appreciation for what text is. To be a good reader, a child will need to understand what text is, how it works, and what it is used for. Unfortunately, as every teacher of young children knows, not all children have the same foundations for literacy. The appreciation for text that children have when they come to school varies tremendously, and this variability needs to be addressed as early as possible. Each child’s text-related skills must be assessed, and focused instruction in appropriate reading and writing skills should start as soon as the child comes to school, be that in first grade, kindergarten, or pre-kindergarten.

Researchers have found that a child's ability to decode words in the first grade is an excellent predictor of the child’s reading comprehension skill in the fourth grade. Many organizations, such as the International Reading Association (IRA) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), have published position statements saying it is never too early to begin literacy instruction, and that literacy instruction should be the concern of anybody working with young children (preschool, daycare, etc.). The assessment and instruction provided in these vital first years of formal education should focus on the cognitive elements that research has shown to be crucial to the process of developing decoding skills. These areas include cipher knowledge, lexical knowledge, an awareness of phonemes, knowledge of the alphabetic principle, knowledge of letters, and understanding concepts about print. Each of these cognitive elements can be examined in turn.

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Cipher Knowledge

Visual Map of the Cognitive Elements of ReadingCipher knowledge basically refers to the underlying knowledge that allows children to read and pronounce regular words correctly. The term "cipher knowledge" may not be a familiar term, but it is a technically precise term, and if teachers are to become experts, they should become familiar with the correct terminology. The technically precise term, "cipher knowledge," is used here to distinguish it from "decoding." Again, if teachers are to become experts, they should understand how a "cipher" differs from a "code."

While a cipher refers to a regular and consistent relationship, a code refers to a more arbitrary and nonsystematic relationship. If you were to replace every letter in written English with a number (e.g., a=1, b=2, c=3, etc.), then you would have developed a cipher, and "deciphering" it would be a matter of following basic rules of translation. On the other hand, if you were to replace whole words with arbitrary numbers (e.g., "the"=11, "of"=21, "and"=13, etc.), then you would have created a code, and a codebook would be required for translation. Thus, when we talk about "deciphering" text, we are talking about the ability to "sound out" regular words (sometimes called "word attack" skills). Cipher knowledge, then, is demonstrated when a person appropriately sounds out words she has never seen before.

Early in the development of cipher knowledge, children learn that certain letter combinations are valid and others are invalid. Young children who are gaining cipher knowledge, despite limited vocabularies, are able to tell that "pem" could be a word, but that "pvm" could not possibly be.

As children continue to develop cipher knowledge, they begin to understand that the English writing system is, for the most part, regular and consistent. They understand, at least implicitly, that words with similar spellings are usually pronounced similarly. Children quickly start to recognize common letter groups in words, and they begin to "read by analogy." Thus, when a child who has realized that words with similar spellings are pronounced similarly comes across a word she has never seen before, such as "pone," she can pronounce it correctly based on her knowledge of other similar words that she is familiar with, such as "lone," "prone," "bone," "tone," "phone," "zone," or "cone." There is some small possibility that her pronunciation will be incorrect ("pone" might rhyme with "done" or "gone"), but chances are the new word will follow the same pattern as known words with similar spellings.

This ability to decipher words is critically important to decoding, and its usefulness can not be overstated. This ability, like the English language itself, is generative, and the foundation of decoding rests upon the ability to decipher.


Instruction tip: Deciphering and decoding are not the same thing—using the spelling-sound knowledge about letters in the English language to "sound out" words is deciphering. Pronouncing words correctly regardless of whether they are regular or irregular is decoding. If a child pronounced "steak" so it rhymed with "beak," the child would be deciphering the word, but not decoding it. When teaching children cipher knowledge, it is best to take the emphasis off of correct pronunciation, and reward children for correctly sounding-out words (or, if possible, avoid using irregular words in that lesson).

Assessment tip: For younger children, make up simple nonsense words, and ask them to name them. Children who can decipher words have no trouble reading words like "hin" "vab" or "lat." For older children, either make up nonsense words that are more appropriate for older children (e.g., "porviate"), or make up a list of people's names that can be deciphered (e.g., "Marty Fendrick"). Tell the children you'd like them to pretend they are a teacher calling roll.


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Lexical Knowledge

Visual Map of the Cognitive Elements of ReadingAgain, a technically precise, although probably unfamiliar term is used here: Lexical knowledge simply refers to the knowledge that enables a child to correctly recognize and pronounce familiar, irregular words. As discussed earlier, the English writing system is fairly structured with some fairly consistent spelling-sound relationships. Some have attempted to formally identify a set of "rules" that capture English spelling-sound relationships, but these attempts have always been somewhat unsatisfactory — there are always many exceptions to any rule. For example, in a phonics lesson, the teacher may tell the children, "Words that end in silent-e have long vowels," but that is only true 60 percent of the time. Children seem to be much better at recognizing patterns and making generalizations based upon observed patterns than at applying explicit rules when decoding words.

The consistent patterns that exist in the English writing system would be described as the "cipher" (see Cipher Knowledge). As children try to identify patterns, however, they are faced with potentially confusing information because many words in English are "exception" or "irregular" words. The pronunciations of these irregular words are not consistent with other words that are spelled similarly: "Colonel" really should not sound like "kernel," and "tongue" ought to be spelled T-U-N-G. Unfortunately, in order to become proficient readers of English, children must be able to fluently and correctly identify both regular and irregular words.

Fortunately, even for irregular words, most of the word can be accurately deciphered or "sounded out." The irregular word, "friend," for example, is only irregular because of the vowel sound—the rest of the word is regular. Deciphering the word results in a pronunciation that is nearly correct—close enough that the young reader can usually figure it out. (Extremely irregular words like "colonel" and "aisle" are actually rare in English.) When a child encounters a regular word, deciphering it is enough, but when she encounters an irregular word, after attempting to decipher it, the child may need to mentally compare that word against other known words. To do this, the child needs an internal representation of all of the words she knows that includes information about spelling, pronunciation, conjugation, meaning, and other relevant details. Reading specialists call this internal representation of all of the words we know our "lexicon"—basically, it is the dictionary in your head. To correctly pronounce irregular words, young readers depend upon their lexical knowledge, which develops with practice, feedback, and exposure to text.

Lexical knowledge develops throughout a reader's life. (Even adults are constantly learning new words — you, for example, might have just learned the word "lexicon.") But the development of lexical knowledge is most visible in children. Young readers start out as sight-word readers: They memorize words as wholes, or they look for some salient feature in a word. Sight-word reading is extremely inefficient and very limited, but the few words the young reader is familiar with are all pronounced correctly. (Whether the word is regular or irregular is not relevant at this point.)

When the child realizes the limitations of memorizing whole words and starts learning to decipher words, she may appear to be taking a step backwards. She might struggle to recognize and correctly pronounce irregular words that she seemed to know previously. Eventually, through experience with the words and with feedback from the teacher, she will begin to learn correct pronunciations for irregular words. The more the child reads, and the more feedback she gets, the more irregular words she will be able to identify correctly.


Instruction tip: Sit with a child (preferably a child who has learned to "sound out" words already) and a book. On each page of the book, ask the child to search for irregular words that you say aloud. ("Can you find the word ‘sword’ on this page?") Be sure to use words that are within the child's speaking vocabulary.

Assessment tip: Ask the child to find five words in a book or a list that are "not spelled the way they sound." Further, ask the child how each word would be pronounced if you just "sounded it out."


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Phoneme Awareness

Visual Map of the Cognitive Elements of ReadingSpoken words are made up of sounds. This is obvious to adults, but it is surprisingly obscure for young children who perceive spoken words as wholes. Within a word, there may be other words (as in the case of compound words). There may also be multiple syllables. And, of course, every spoken word is comprised of phonemes.

When a child becomes generally aware of the fact that spoken words are made up of sounds, she is described as having "phonological awareness." Phonological awareness can take the form of awareness of rhyme, awareness of syllables, awareness of the onsets of words, etc.


Phonological awareness is different from phoneme awareness. Or more precisely, phoneme awareness is a type of phonological awareness. Skills that would generally be described as phonological awareness skills include the ability to rhyme words, the ability to break words into syllables, and the ability to break syllables into their onset and rime. Phoneme awareness goes beyond phonological awareness by placing the emphasis on the individual phonemes within the word. Phoneme awareness skills, then, would include the ability to isolate a phoneme (first, middle, or last) from the rest of the word, the ability to segment words into individual phonemes, or the ability to delete a specified phoneme from a word.


Do not confuse phonological awareness with phoneme awareness, however. Phoneme awareness is a more specific term that falls under the umbrella of phonological awareness. It refers to the specific understanding that spoken words are made up of individual phonemes—not just sounds in general, but phonemes. Children with phoneme awareness know that the word "wait" is made up of three phonemes, and that the words "pill" and "map" both contain the phoneme /p/. In short, they know that phonemes are the building blocks of spoken words, and that these building blocks can be rearranged and substituted to make different words.

Phonological awareness is a step in the right direction, but phoneme awareness is what is necessary for the child to understand that the letters in written words represent the phonemes in spoken words (the alphabetic principle). Understanding that the letter M stands for the sound /m/, by itself, is not phoneme awareness. Teachers need to ensure that children understand that, for example, the word "camel" has an /m/ sound in it, and that the /m/ sound in the middle of "camel" is the same as the /m/ sound at the end of "home" and at the beginning of "moon."

Phoneme awareness and phonological awareness are often confused with phonics, but phonics is an instructional approach that emphasizes letter-sound relationships and rules for pronunciation. The emphasis in a phonics classroom is the mapping between letters and phonemes (as in the previous example—the letter m represents the sound /m/). Phoneme awareness is not necessarily related to phonics. It is possible for a child to have phoneme awareness without having much experience with written letters or with letter names, and conversely it is possible for a child to provide examples of letter-sound relationships without ever developing phoneme awareness (a child with no phoneme awareness may know the letter m represents the sound /m/ without knowing that the word "ham" has an /m/ sound in it). Many children do not develop phoneme awareness from traditional phonics instruction; simply learning letter-sound relationships does not necessarily help a child to gain phoneme awareness. New phonics programs are incorporating explicit instruction in phoneme awareness, but traditionally, phoneme awareness instruction was never a part of phonics classrooms.

Another concept that people often confuse with phoneme awareness is phonology. However, phonology (as discussed in the elements under language comprehension), has to do with being able to distinguish between similar phonemes when they are embedded in the context of whole words. Phonology has to do with being able to hear the difference between the spoken words "sip" and "ship;" phoneme awareness has to do with being aware that the word "sip" is made up of three sounds: /s/, /i/ and /p/. Most children entering school have normal phonologic skills, but most children lack phoneme awareness when they come to school. For most children, phoneme awareness must be explicitly taught.

The importance of teaching phoneme awareness cannot be overstated. Hundreds of studies of phoneme awareness conducted over the past 25 years indicate the following:

  • Phoneme awareness is essential to the process of learning to read.
  • Explicitly teaching phoneme awareness facilitates later reading acquisition.
  • Some reading failure has been linked to a lack of phoneme awareness.

As important as it is, however, it is possible to go overboard teaching phoneme awareness. English contains many confusing phonemes such as diphthongs and glides that even mature, experienced readers can have trouble identifying. (How many phonemes do you hear in "play" or "cube"?) Furthermore, certain phonemes are not universally defined. (What are the phonemes in "wring" or "fur"?)

It is important for the teacher to remember that a child does not need to be an Olympic champion at phoneme manipulation; she just needs to demonstrate knowledge of the fact that spoken words are made up of phonemes and that phonemes can be rearranged and manipulated to make different words. That level of awareness is all a child needs to understand the alphabetic principle (more on that later), which is the only reason that phoneme awareness is important in learning to decode text. An appropriate level of phoneme awareness can be instilled and supported with a select subset of phonemes. Phoneme awareness can be taught using words that do not contain consonant clusters or glides, and that have phonemes which are easy to pronounce in isolation. (The phoneme /b/, for example, is often avoided in phoneme awareness lessons because it can not be pronounced without a subsequent vowel sound. Pronouncing /b/ so that it sounds like /buh/ is confusing to a child trying to develop phoneme awareness.)


Instruction tip: One game that children like to play is "I spy with my little eye." You can use this game to enhance phoneme awareness by having children look for objects whose names begin with certain sounds. (Don’t use letters in this game; use sounds.) To make it more challenging, have the children look for objects whose names end with certain sounds.

Assessment tip: Use the "Turtle Talk" game to assess the child’s phoneme segmentation ability. Sit one-on-one with a child; tell her that, in addition to walking slowly, turtles talk slowly. Ask her to take a breath after every sound she makes. Demonstrate for the child how a turtle would say the word "man" (/m/ /a/ /n/ taking a clear breath between each sound). Try to use words that have phonemes that are easy to say in isolation, such as /t/ /m/ and /f/. Avoid words that contain phonemes like the hard /g/ and /b/ because they can not be said without adding a vowel to the end (so they sound like /guh/ and /buh/). Also, start with simple words, and build up to more difficult words.


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Knowledge of the Alphabetic Principle

Visual Map of the Cognitive Elements of ReadingNot every language has an alphabet. In Japanese, the symbols in text represent syllables; in the traditional Chinese writing system, each symbol represents a whole word. In most western languages, however, the symbols in text represent phonemes. Knowledge of the alphabetic principle refers to an understanding that spoken words are made up of phonemes (phoneme awareness) and that those phonemes are represented in text as letters. An understanding of the alphabetic principle is the cornerstone on which English literacy is built. Unfortunately, it is a concept that children often fail to grasp (usually because they lack phoneme awareness, and therefore, do not understand what letters in text represent).

To master decoding, and to make sense of letter-sound relationships, a child must first make the connection between the symbols on the page and the sounds in speech. Specifically, she needs to understand that the letters in written words correspond to the phonemes in spoken words. A child who is "sight reading" can see a symbol on a page and know that it stands for a spoken word, but the symbol that she is seeing is the whole word. Teachers need to focus the child’s attention on the letters that make up written words and the phonemes that make up spoken words.

Similarly, some children are able to demonstrate a knowledge of letter-sound relationships without actually understanding the alphabetic principle. Such children are able to report that the letter "s" makes an /s/ sound, but they really do not understand that "fast" and "seat" both have an /s/ sound in them, and that the /s/ sound is represented by a letter when you write the word.


Instruction tip: Role reversal sometimes helps children grasp the alphabetic principle. Encourage your student to make up vocabulary words for you to write down. They should not be real words, but should be nonsense words that the child creates. Show the child that you are faithfully recording the sounds she is making; ask her to clearly enunciate each sound so you can write it down accurately.

Assessment tip: Pay attention to how the child writes. For the purposes of assessing the child's understanding of the alphabetic principle, it does not matter whether the child writes accurately. What matters is that she writes one symbol per sound. The symbols do not even have to be letters, as long as words with three phonemes are represented in her writing by three symbols.


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Letter Knowledge

Visual Map of the Cognitive Elements of ReadingThe letter is the basic unit of reading and writing, and letter knowledge has consistently been shown to be one of the best predictors of later reading success. A child beginning to read should be familiar with these elements of text, but simple knowledge of the alphabet is not enough. For a child, the alphabet is an arbitrary poem or song filled with meaningless babble. (Most people are familiar with the fact that children often think that "lmno" is a single unit.) The alphabet song does not necessarily have any more meaning to a child than any other song, and many children learn to recite the alphabet without any understanding of what they are reciting.

Before they can read, children must be comfortable and familiar with the letters of the alphabet. They should be able to identify the letters in different fonts and type case, and they should be comfortable with handwritten letters as well as letters embedded within words (as opposed to presented in isolation). Most importantly, they should be able to discriminate one letter from the other letters of the alphabet (e.g., what features of the letter p makes it different from the letter q).

A variety of approaches are used for teaching children the letters of the alphabet, and some approaches are more effective for some children than for others. When learning about letters, some children find it easier to learn the letter sounds rather than the letter names. (This approach for teaching letter-knowledge is often associated with the Montessori approach.) Some children are already familiar with the letter sounds, and learning to match the symbol or symbols that could be used to represent each sound may be less confusing for those children.

Similarly, some children find it easier to learn about the shapes of the letters first, before learning letter names. Once they are able to sort the letters into different categories (letters with curved parts, letters with straight parts, letters that stick up, letters than hang down, etc.), then they are able to attach names to the different letters. As with anything else, when learning something new, it is always easier to build onto familiar information.


Instruction tip: For young children who are just learning the letters, rather than just teaching them the letter names, have the children sort the letters into groups by their features — letters with curves, letters with straight lines, letters with both, etc. This helps children see that some letters are similar, but still different (such as the u and n or the n and h). Once they see these differences, they will be less likely to confuse them later.

Assessment tip: Present letters to the child in both uppercase and lowercase and in random order. Ask the child to "tell you about each letter." Have her give the name, or a sound that it represents, or a word that begins with that letter. Make note of hesitation or confusion.


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Concepts About Print

Visual Map of the Cognitive Elements of ReadingMany young children are unaware of text, and have no understanding of what it is or how it works. Often, these children think that the pictures in books contain all of the information, and that when people "read," they are using the pictures as the source of information. It has been often documented that when children first engage in play-reading behavior, they typically focus their attention on the pages with pictures. However, as children mature and gain more text experience, their attention moves to the pages containing the text. Children who are developing healthy concepts about print flip through books from beginning to end (holding them right-side-up), and they point to the text they are "reading" (even though they may be telling a story unrelated to the actual text). As they point, they may even demonstrate the understanding that text is read from top to bottom in sweeps from left to right, and they may point at the individual words in the passage (as opposed to pointing at random locations in the line).

Also, a child’s early attempts at writing can give many insights into her concepts about print. Even though the child's writing is not recognizable as anything more than scribbles, an observant teacher may notice that the child is scribbling in lines starting at the top of the page — one above another — and each line is scribbled from left to right with spaces between scribbles on a line. These outward behaviors, to the trained eye, are demonstrations of the child’s understanding of the mechanics of text.

As they learn more about text and the rules that govern text construction, children very quickly develop concepts about the way text is "supposed" to be. They may even go through a period where they do not want to write any more because they are not able to do it "right." This can be discouraging for a teacher, but this behavior is a sign that the child is developing healthy concepts about print. For children who grow up with rich text experiences, print concepts often develop without any explicit instruction, but for children who grow up in a text-poor environment, understanding the mechanics of print may require explicit instruction.


Instruction tip: When sharing a book with a child, it is always a good idea to explain what you are doing as a reader. Point to the words as you read, show her what the punctuation is for, and encourage her to take part in the reading activity (pointing to the words, or turning the pages).

Assessment tip: Hand a book, closed and face down, to the child and ask her to open it and to point to the words so that you can read. Read each word as the child points. The child should move from word to word as you do. Ask older children to find uppercase and lowercase letters in the text, and to describe the function of the punctuation.


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Reading Comprehension

Visual Map of the Cognitive Elements of ReadingWe have described many elements that support good reading comprehension here. We have said that reading comprehension depends upon two equally important skills (language comprehension and decoding), and that each of those skills depends upon more fundamental skills. This suggests that a teacher should first teach the fundamental skills before teaching the more advanced skills, but that is certainly not our recommendation. The cognitive elements we have described here tend to develop congruently in a young reader’s mind, and the elements, as they develop, serve to reinforce each other. Further, the development of these elements is not very predictable—it varies from child to child. The message that we are trying to convey with this framework is that all of these elements are important, and that teachers need to be mindful of each child's individual literacy development.

The structure of the framework suggests a strategy for diagnostic reading assessment. If a child can not read grade-appropriate text, the first two areas a teacher should examine are the child’s language comprehension skill (could the child understand the text if it was read aloud to her), and the child’s decoding skill. If problems are uncovered at that gross level, the rest of the framework suggests a strategy for examining more fundamental reading skills.

The structure of the framework is not meant to suggest that reading comprehension can not occur until all of the more fundamental cognitive elements are fully developed. Reading comprehension is like the motor in a car — if every part functions well and the motor is put together properly, the motor as a whole will function well, but even when some of the parts are not functioning very well, the motor sometimes still runs, albeit poorly.

It is unclear when reading comprehension begins. It could be argued that reading comprehension in its most fundamental form begins when a child first makes the connection between symbol and concept. For some children, that may come from environmental print; for others, that may come from recognizing their own printed name. A child who has not developed the knowledge necessary to "sound out" words but who can recognize a few hundred "sight words" is able to "read" and understand certain basic text, as long as the words in the text are within her sight-word vocabulary. The motor runs, it just does not run well, and it only runs when conditions are right.

Stretching the motor analogy further, all of the parts of a motor may be independently functional, but the motor will not run if the motor itself is not assembled correctly. The cognitive elements that give rise to good reading comprehension are not isolated from each other. We have presented them in this framework as if they were fractured and modular, but we did so only to describe them, and to see how they relate to each other. Our presentation should by no means be taken as an indication that reading instruction should be fractured and modular. Children sometimes have trouble putting the pieces together and understanding how these basic skills relate to reading. It is common for children to be comfortable and competent with drills from phonics lessons but to be unaware that they should apply that knowledge to unfamiliar words in text. Likewise, it is common for children to not recognize that the sounds they hear in their phonics lesson are the same sounds they hear in speech. A good reading teacher does not merely teach the basic skills, but also teaches how those basic skills relate to each other and helps children integrate these various elements to support their reading development.

Reading comprehension is a skill with a knowledge base just like all of the elements that support it, and as such, it can and should be taught explicitly. The teacher can help the student develop an appreciation for the different types of reading comprehension (literal comprehension, inferential comprehension, and evaluative comprehension), and the different types of text (expository, narrative, formal, informal) and can introduce the child to the differences in literary genres. The child can be encouraged to move from a mastery of oral reading to a mastery of more efficient and mature silent reading, and along with teaching explicit strategies to improve comprehension, the teacher can help the child learn to monitor her own comprehension of text as she reads.

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Putting the pieces together

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 text. Now 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 knowledge.

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.

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