Does Your Child’s Reading Program Make the Grade?

By Evelyn Russo, Ph.D. and Eve Kessler, Esq.

While there may be no such thing as a perfect reading program for students with dyslexia and other language learning disabilities, The National Reading Panel has identified five core components of reading, each of which must be taught explicitly and systematically. Ensuring that your child’s reading program includes the following components is fundamental to his or her language skills development:

  • Phoneme awareness
  • Phonics (code instruction)
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Text comprehension

Phoneme Awareness

Phoneme awareness is the ability to isolate each sound in a word and blend individual sounds. It is a prerequisite for reading and spelling instruction. In pre-school, children begin to learn that language can be broken up into smaller units: sentences are made up of words and words are made up of syllables. This realization leads to understanding that words are comprised of sounds.

A child with full phoneme awareness has mastered rhyming; understands that words are made up of different syllables; hears the first sound of a word first, the final sound next, and the middle sound last; hears blends in a word (st-o-p), and processes all five sounds in a word like blast with two separate sounds before and after the vowel. For instruction purposes, a teacher needs to assess a child’s ability level and stage of phoneme awareness, as teaching strategies differ depending on those factors.

Code Instruction

The spelling patterns of English must be taught so children can “lift words off the page.” One way to determine how much a child knows about the English writing system is to assess his ability to “read” nonsense words with letter patterns that are seen in real words, for example: glame as in the word flame.

Instruction should be fun: Lessons may include jingles, recognizing and sorting pictures and words, making words with children acting out the sounds, etc. Older students benefit from teaching the meaning units of English, including what various roots mean, as well as prefixes and suffixes. This instruction helps to unlock the meaning of many words necessary for understanding vocabulary used in science and social studies.


Vocabulary is critical for reading comprehension. Words and word knowledge may be developed through direct vocabulary lessons using engaging activities, such as read-alouds, audiobooks, or pictures that capture the essence of the meaning of words. Early elementary school-aged children also build their vocabulary and word knowledge through dialogue and conversation: asking questions, word chats, talking about places they’ve been, and experiences they’ve had. Once a word is in a child’s mental dictionary, he is able to use it in speaking and writing.

It is important to teach “tier 2” words—words that are not content specific, such as refreshing, shimmer, outgoing, gleaned, convince, and resourceful. These words, found mostly in books, must be taught through direct instruction, usually after teachers have introduced them during read-alouds.


Skilled readers read every word and recognize a word both in and out of context. Fluent readers recognize words instantly and monitor comprehension as they go. Poor readers with weak decoding skills over-rely on context. A child must read accurately before he can be automatic and fluent while reading text. One of the best ways to improve reading fluency is to practice with all kinds of text at the child’s reading level.

Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension is the process of extracting and constructing meaning from the text. It involves interaction between the reader, the text and the reader’s knowledge. In order to be proficient, students must be accurate and automatic decoders and understand spoken and written language.

Before children learn to read, they build comprehension skills by listening to stories read aloud. Teaching reading comprehension involves helping a child develop awareness by talking him through the different stages of the story and asking questions as you go. For example: What happened there? What happened next? Why did he make that plan? Was it successful? Why or why not?

As children learn more about what they’re being asked to read, they will be motivated to read more. This, along with direct instruction in phoneme awareness and decoding principles, will provide novice readers with the tools they need to master a skill that is the most important one they will ever learn.

Related Smart Kids Topics