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The Five Essential Components of Reading

A child’s ability to read will impact both her success in school as well as throughout life. A collaborative effort among three federal agencies identified five key areas of understanding that are essential when learning to read.

An effective and comprehensive reading program must incorporate the following five essential elements:

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is an oral language skill that refers to the ability to recognize and manipulate the individual sounds that make up words. At a rudimentary level, this skill deals with the smallest units of sound (phoneme). Specifically, phonemic awareness is the ability to orally separate a word into its individual sounds (segmenting), combine individual sounds together to form a word (blending) and alter each sound in a word by adding, deleting or substituting sounds (manipulating). Phonemic awareness is a fundamental skill that beginner readers need to obtain; they must grasp the concept that words are made up of many different sounds.

Phonics and Word Recognition

Phonics and word recognition encompasses learning the relationships between letters and sounds, obtaining an effective strategy for decoding unknown words, and recognizing words automatically. Research has shown that a direct and systematic phonics program helps children learn to read. Teaching letter-sound relationships helps a child identify written words. A beginner reader needs to learn the relationship between 44 speech sounds in the English language and more than 100 spellings used to represent these sounds. In addition, a beginner reader must possess strategies for decoding both known and unknown words. Our language is filled with many irregular words and these words must be identified by sight.


Fluency is the ability to quickly and accurately name or read letters, words, phrases, sentences or passages. Fluency is an essential element of both reading and comprehension, a child must be able to quickly and automatically link words together into meaningful phrases. A fluent reader can decode the text rapidly and accurately while obtaining the meaning of the text.


Vocabulary refers to the knowledge of words and word meanings in both written and spoken words; it is the key that unlocks the meaning of what you read. The larger your vocabulary, the easier it will be to understand the text because knowing the meaning of words helps a reader understand what they read. A strong vocabulary also provides clues for unknown words.


Comprehension refers to the ability to understand both spoken and written language (the individual words as well as the broader meaning of phrases, sentences, paragraphs, etc.). It is the ultimate goal of reading! Comprehension relies on a set of skills and strategies used to read or hear our language and understand what it is saying. It is an active process of obtaining meaning from text, which relies on previous knowledge and experiences, vocabulary, making inferences and drawing conclusions.

When learning to read, a child needs to receive adequate instruction in the five essential elements noted above. A child learns to read in the early years so that he can read to learn the rest of his life.

References: Rath, L.K., Ed.D & Kennedy, L. (2004). The Between the Lions Book for Parents. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Vaugh, S & Linan-Thompson, S (2004). Research-Based Methods of Reading Instruction. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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