The 7 Essential Steps To Reading Mastery

July 13, 2015 by Geoff Nixon

What’s Mastering Reading Means, What It Takes To Get There And How Parents Can Help

Mastering reading is no easy feat.  It takes years to develop and needs a wide range of cognitive — processing, sequencing, attention, working memory, visual eye tracking — and reading skills to function flawlessly. Any impediments along the multi-year path to reading proficiency has the potential to derail reading for life.

Visions of the path to mastery in reading have changed over time, further confusing the picture for parents.  This confusion over the best way to learn to read occurs because reading is not a natural skill like listening.  It’s a relatively recent human activity and so it must be learned.

Defining Mastery of Reading

First, let’s be sure we understand how reading works.  Our understanding of the world — vocabulary with attached meanings — is achieved through an auditory process.  Reading is the ability to take in language in text format and match it to our auditory word memory.  From there, meaning is connected to prior knowledge in the memory and is then analyzed.

How The Brain Works When Mastering ReadingThere is more to mastering reading than you might think.  Students should not be considered proficient until they are reading with comprehension.  This includes being able to take in meaning, to put it in context and to make inferences, all while reading. Ultimately, reading also requires metacognition, the ability to think critically about what is being read, to self-direct and adjust while reading.

All of this has to happen at lightning speed.  So many skills need to work well for reading to be proficient — visual processing, language processing, working memory, attention, etc.  It really is a miraculous human achievement that any of us can read.

In terms of age expectations, the most widely-accepted international reading standard is PISA (Program for International Student Assessment).  It is run by the OECD and is the best guide. It assumes children are proficient readers by the age of 15, or 10th grade.

While many children master reading comprehension before 10th grade, it is not the norm.  By the way, there is reading and there is reading comprehension.  Just because a child can get through Harry Potter in 3rd grade does mean that child has mastered reading with metacognition.

We should also mention the obvious.  Every child is different.  Unfortunately, this is not so obvious to many of the politicians that are managing our education system at present.  Common Core State Standards and other State standards set a rigid timetable for reading growth, even though that is not how learning to read works.  Some students get stuck early on, but then do well later.  Others have no problems with the reading fundamentals but struggle with comprehension.  This is why we have not attached any age levels or time periods to each step below.

Impediments to Mastery of Reading

Before reviewing the steps mastering reading, it is important to understand where most children run into difficulty.  According to a 1998 National Research Council report called Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children there are three main impediments to reading:

  • Difficulty learning to read words accurately and fluently
  • Insufficient vocabulary, general knowledge, and reasoning skills to support comprehension of written language
  • Absence or loss of initial motivation to read

Motivation Is Crucial To Reading Success

The steps to reading proficiency below combine a scientific understanding of the mechanics of reading with an awareness of these common difficulties that undermine learning to read for so many children.
Motivation Is Key To Reading Mastery
While not stated below as a step in its own right, we cannot stress enough the importance of taking the long view to securing reading confidence.  It’s about choosing to maintain a positive connection to reading rather than risk a loss of motivation early on with forced reading, dreary spelling, exhausting reading exercises or humiliating out-loud reading.

Step #1: Develop Cognitive or Pre-Reading Skills

There are several cognitive skills delays that can make reading almost impossible. This is true for students of all ages.  Most dyslexic adults have had years of reading instruction, but were never able to master reading primarily because they did not develop the foundational cognitive skills required for reading.

The most important of these essential skills is language processing. The listening requirement for reading is much higher than it is for speech.  For reading, a child must be able to hear every sound inside a word, not just the word as one sound.  Note, most children with language processing delays that impact learning to read do not have speech delays or other outward signs of language difficulty.

If your child cannot discriminate sounds clearly because he is not processing efficiently, he will not recognize words in text format.  Rhyming is the first, and arguably most telling, language processing challenge.  Rhyming is the ability to process — hear and compare — sounds. An inability to rhyme is far and away the most reliable predictor of an at risk reader.

Related to the ability to process language is sequencing (for spelling and comprehension), working memory (for comprehension and critical thinking) and attention (for learning how to read and for reading practice). If language processing is weak, these other important skills tend not to be practiced and developed.

A second set of cognitive skills involve sensory integration, the ability of different parts of the brain to work in sync. This is important for reading — visual input maps to auditory word memory to extract meaning, all almost instantaneously, at 25 milliseconds per syllable to be exact.

How Parents Can Help

As long as your child is struggling with reading, even as a teenager, you should not lose sight of the importance of foundational cognitive skills.  Deficits in this area account for most of the difficulties struggling readers face. A ten-year study by the National Institute of Health found that 88% of reading difficulties were grounded in weak phonemic awareness, a skill that absolutely requires sound language processing.  Reading instruction is wasted if a child literally cannot hear the difference between |da| and |ba|.

Language processing and related skills are best developed through spoken language interaction.  This means lots of adult conversation and reading to your child as often as possible.  Sensory integration skills are best developed through physical activities that require coordination and/or balance — dance, ball sports, judo, etc.

If you  are concerned that your child is not developing cognitive skills as expected, there are treatments that can accelerate development delays.  These include Fast ForWord (provided by Gemm Learning) for language processing and Occupational Therapy sessions, Interactive Metronome and many others for sensory integration.  Most of these therapies are appropriate for children 6 years and older.

Step #2: Phonemic Awareness

Decoding text and reading should be like listening.  A good reader is able to read left to right, taking in words as they come the same way language is understood.  This requires good phonemic awareness, the ability to hear the sounds (phonemes) inside words and to associate these sounds to letters of the alphabet.

A long line of research studies confirm that phonemic awareness is the best predictor of early reading success, better than IQ, vocabulary, and listening comprehension. This notion was first proposed by Stanovich in 1994, although cognitive researchers like Dr. Paula Tallal, a co-founder of Fast ForWord, were investigating the link between phonemic awareness and reading skills in the 1980s.

Phonemic awareness at first needs to be accurate, so that every word read can be mapped perfectly to auditory word memory.  It then needs to be automatic, effortless, again, just like listening.

Note:  Automatic phonemic awareness will not develop unless language processing is perfect.  To the extent it is not, your child will need to compensate by concentrating a little on hearing the sounds and this will detract from his mind’s ability to learn the other aspects of reading.  This extra concentration is not only frustrating, it is also the source of exhaustion for young struggling readers.

How Parents Can Help

Phonemic awareness is arguably the most crucial of all reading skills.  It involves comfort and dexterity with the sounds of language.  Rhyming games are great — this includes writing limericks and poems.  There also lots of phonemic awareness game suggestions online.

Most importantly, phonemic awareness requires sound auditory processing skills.  If you suspect your child might be struggling to discriminate between the sounds at the end or beginning of words, e.g., being able to always hear and name the |b| in “bear” and the |n| “den,” you should consider finding a cognitive skills program to help.

Step #3: Sight Word Vocabulary & Spelling

Before a child can read fluently there are a number of sight words that need to be memorized.  These so-called red words, like “what” and “because” are irregular, meaning they cannot be spelled phonetically, and so there is no choice but to simply memorize them.

Spelling, actually, is crucial to reading at lightning speed.  In the end, every word becomes a sight word that is instantly recognized.  The brain is able to achieve this amazing feat by recognizing spelling patterns.  This is sometimes called “word sense.”  Spelling requires mastery of phonetically regular words (84% of all words) first and then learning spelling rules and exceptions.

Step #4: Decoding With Automaticity

For many children, particularly those with language processing delays, this is a time consuming step that must be mastered before true reading mastery can be achieved.

Until very recently, reading speed, as measured in words per minute, was the main focus of elementary reading instruction.  This was because fluent reading is a key predictor of reading comprehension because fluent reading can only occur if decoding is automatic and done subconsciously.  When decoding is automatic, the mind is free and available for comprehension — a child who cannot read fluently is likely to also struggle with reading comprehension.

Automaticity is the holy grail of reading.  It is also where most struggling readers fall short. Many 3rd and 4th graders run into difficulty with reading comprehension because they are not decoding automatically. Their need to concentrate to decode detracts from their efforts to comprehend what they are reading.

What Parents Can Do

If the cognitive fundamentals are in place, and if phonemic awareness is accurate, then the key to reading automaticity is practice. While there needs to be a focus on the long haul here, i.e., a conscious decision not to press too hard on reading practice, parents can help keep their child reading by making sure they are reading books in their reading zone.  This means being aware of your child’s reading level and then selecting books that are in his zone of proximal development, his reading sweet spot, typically ranging from a year below to a year above.

If the fundamentals are not in place, you are better off going back investing in developing those key skills before pressing your child to do a lot reading for which he is ill-equipped.

Step #5: Language Knowledge

Skill Strands To Mastering ReadingDr. G Reid Lyon, a professor at SMU and prior head of NIH, is a leading thinker in the area of reading.  He emphasizes the importance of language knowledge in reading comprehension.  If a child does not understand the nuances of language, comprehension will be compromised.

This includes oral language skills, knowledge of language structures, and vocabulary.

This knowledge is accumulated through observation while listening and reading.  The ability to think and analyze while listening and while reading vastly accelerates the building of this knowledge.

Children who do not have the language processing efficiency required to think while reading and listening will require more direct instruction, particularly on sentence syntax — use of pronouns, tenses, etc.

What Parents Can Do

If you know your child’s language processing is delayed and/or his use of language is tortured at times, you may have to complement the natural acquisition of language knowledge and school instruction.  This would include deliberately using interesting vocabulary whenever possible and playing games such as Scrabble which will expose your child to words in a fun and positive way.

Step #6:  Literal Reading Comprehension

Many parents will be surprised to see literal reading comprehension at step 6, not earlier.  There are pressures on children to read with comprehension by the end of 2nd grade.  Specifically, the Common Core State State Standards require children to “read and comprehend literature, including stories and poetry.”

There is great danger in focusing on reading comprehension too early.  Children want to please, and so if the way to please teachers and parents is to read with comprehension, they will try to figure out how to do that.

For many, this will mean abandoning the exhausting task of trying to decode words a syllable at a time in favor of another strategy, most likely memorization of all words.  Memorization will get the job done in 2nd grade and even in 3rd grade, but will fall apart in 4th grade and beyond as the word list expands.  At that time, the student will have to go back to learning how to decode words one syllable at a time.

Unfortunately, it is not only kids who feel the pressure.  Teachers also are now being held to account for reading comprehension standards in 2nd grade, when by the way, many of the world’s leading reading nations have not yet even started formal reading instruction.  Their philosophy is not to risk a lifetime aversion to reading by pressing too hard too soon — when language processing skills and language knowledge is still developing.

What Parents Can Do

Don’t push your child into reading with comprehension too early.  When your young child is reading out loud you should concentrate on accurate decoding and language knowledge ahead of anything else.

Literal reading comprehension requires practice.  The best thing a parent can do is to make sure your child always has books that are interesting to them and are in their reading sweet spot, as outlined in step 4.

Step #7: Reading Comprehension With Metacognition

Once literal comprehension is mastered, metacognitive strategies bring in additional elements — active, lean forward reading strategies where the reader self-adjusts while reading.  The metacognitive reader thinks while reading.  Do I understand this?  Does this fit with my prior knowledge? Do I need to slow down or re-read this?

College-ready reading, usually achieved by the end of 10th grade, requires two elements beyond literal reading comprehension:

  1. Student motivation and engagement in reading. They need to be enthusiastic, not passive and uninterested.
  2. Knowledge. Metacognition is all about connection to prior knowledge, knowledge about texts, content knowledge and life experience.  It requires a lively, curious and creative mind.

What Parents Can Do

This is where the US education system is letting children down.  The test results first mantra is the opposite of developing curiosity and creativity.  Test results encourage narrow “keyword” answers or even worse, choosing from one of four choices.

Part of developing an enthusiastic and active mind while reading starts at an early age.  Parents need to offset the narrowing of thinking that comes from teaching to the test.  We wrote about this in our article out lifelong learning — inspiring curiosity and creativity.

Metacognitive strategies require a considerable amount of practice. It requires active engagement with reading that is beyond parental influence — it’s very much a function of a student’s emotional connection to reading.

Final Thoughts

The path to mastering reading varies by child.  It depends how easy to was for them to get started, their ongoing interests and their teachers along the way.  Then, the final step requires an enthusiasm about reading that has to be protected and nurtured along the way.

Without the motivation to read, your child will not put in the reading practice miles required to master decoding and then to learn metacognition.  And so, while we are big fans of early intervention for struggling readers — it’s what we do — we would counsel patience early on, which may mean protecting your child from pressures from his school, whose motivations are not long term, but rather based on meeting standards each year.

Turning your child off reading is risky business.  Take the lessons from the Finnish reading model — children who do not start reading until the age of 7 catch up by age 11 or so with those who started at an earlier age.  However, many more of those 7 year old children love reading more than their counterparts who started earlier.  A negative relationship with reading is hard to turn around.