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An Introduction

When parents are asked what they are most uncomfortable helping their children with academically, two things come up most often: math beyond middle school and teaching a child to read.

Reading is confounding to most adults. They may have been too young to really remember a time before they were able to read, and they can rarely recall actually learning to read.

For many, the whole process seems to have taken place due to some sort of magic.

There’s an explanation for this. First, of course, is the age at which we teach the majority of reading concepts. Memory doesn’t always stretch that far in much detail.

Secondly, around the time most people who now have kids who are learning to read were learning to read themselves, there was an important shift in reading education.

For some time, children learned to read by using a program of phonics instruction, meaning they learned the individual sounds made by the smallest units of written language. They would learn to recognize the letters, how to make the sounds for each letter, and then they would combine that information to read a word.

Then, a little less than a hundred years ago, a system for memorizing words was introduced. This was popularized by the misunderstanding of a researcher’s findings on how to help students with reading differences. The education publishers all adopted this “new” method, and using phonics quickly fell out of style.

The following years produced more children and adults who could not read well, and for decades, the education world was baffled.

At the same time, reading and phonics instruction became the job for earlier and earlier teachers, pressuring the youngest children to begin reading almost as soon as they were out of diapers.

In recent years, educators and scientific researchers around the world have renewed their interests in finding what works in teaching children to read.

Below is some of the information from those findings, presented in the most useful and practical way possible.

The Basics

For years, we said that there were five components of reading. Now we must expand upon that understanding to include 7 components. The more educators, parents, and students understand this terminology, the more likely it is we will all use the knowledge it stands for.

Here are the 7 components, and you can find a more detailed explanation for each below: 

1 phonics
2 phonemic awareness
3 vocabulary
4 fluency
5 comprehension
6 orthographic awareness

oral language skills, which consist of


  • morphological awareness and 
  • syntactic awareness:


phonemic awareness




orthographic awareness

oral language skills, which consist of:

    • morphological awareness and 
    • syntactic awareness

All of these elements must be represented in balanced reading instruction.


A phoneme is a term used for one individual unit of sound. The study of phonics is what many people refer to as children “learning their letters” and what some people think is the only thing a child has to learn to be able to read. 

There are about 44 phonemes (individual sounds) in the English language. 

We know now, though, that phonics is just the tip of the iceberg of reading.

Phonics is the relationship between graphemes (the written representations of the individual phonemes) and the phonemes themselves.

Phonics engages the eyes, ears, and processing aspects of the brain. 

Phonemic Awareness

No, it’s not the same as phonics (that gets asked a lot). 

Phonemic awareness is what we call the process involved in listening and speaking the phonemes. It’s basically a label for the invisible process happening in your brain as you hear, understand, form, and speak your own words.


Vocabulary is absolutely vital to growing reading abilities.  Vocabulary absolutely should be included, tested, and even required to have correct spelling (within reason).

And the great news is, you probably know all about it! It’s the study of words and definitions.


Fluency refers to the rate, speed, and accuracy with which one reads, processes, and comprehends text. Oral reading is additionally comprised of things like pitch, volume, rhythm, tone, smoothness, inflection, and pauses. 

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a good place to start. 


Comprehension is the meat of reading. It’s the ever-important goal – the understanding of the text that can be internalized and understood to the point that the reader can interpret, remember, and discuss the content.

Texts should be observed in relation to self, other texts, and the world. 

There are elements of texts to be observed that can build and expand comprehension. 

Orthographic Awareness 

Ortho means “of the mouth”. Graphic means “print, symbol, or communication through picture”. Orthographic awareness, then, is the awareness of both spoken sounds and print. 

More specifically, it refers to systems within the language such as conventional spelling (both reading and writing the patterns), letter order, specific letter combinations, capitalization, hyphenation, punctuation, word recognition on sight, and directionality of letters. 

By the way, remember those 44ish phonemes we mentioned above? Here’s why it’s such a challenge for kids to learn it all before 4th grade: we spell those 44 (give or take) sounds about 150 different ways.

In order to really become good readers, kids need to be learning all those things much longer than we usually take to teach them, and they need to work on those skills every day.

Oral Language Skills

Morphological Awareness 

Morphemes are the smallest units of words in English that contain meaning. Morphemes are what we call the prefix, suffix, and root (or base) words.

Morphological awareness, then, is the specific processing or thinking done about the smallest units of meaning in English words. 

To see this in action, return to the section above on orthographic awareness. When you read that first small paragraph, you were being morphologically aware.

Syntactic Awareness

Syntax is the arrangement of words and phrases used in creating sentences. Much of our syntactic awareness is conveyed and understood without explanation, but we all know when someone’s gotten it wrong (we’re all looking at you, Yoda). 

Put It All Together

You may be completely overwhelmed now. It would make sense if you were.

The good news, though, is that you don’t really need to remember all those details.

If you are homeschooling your child, look for a curriculum that covers all of the areas mentioned.

If you are planning to send your child to school, or they are already in school, be aware of what is happening in the programs they participate with.  Keep this blog handy so you can just check to be sure all the elements are included.

If at any point your child struggles with reading, you can look at their classroom reading instruction more knowledgeably with this information and see where you may need to add something to help them.

How to Begin

If you want to teach your child to read, start with the alphabet. They should learn the most common sounds each letter makes first. If you’re unsure about the pronunciation for each letter,  

Start with the letters in your child’s name and the words most important to them. Remember that names often do not follow phonics rules, and letters may make different sounds (or no sound at all) in the pronunciation of a name.

Typically, beginning readers start by learning their name and words like I, me, my, can, mom, dad, and/or any other words that they enjoy using.

It’s best to teach both reading and “writing” skills together, but young children don’t need to actually write with a pencil and paper. Let them practice forming letters with sticks or other objects found in nature, shaving cream on a table, with finger paints, or other fun and interactive materials.

Young children need to learn to create letters using large muscle movement before focusing on the smaller muscles used for handwriting. Writing their name in the dirt or on a sidewalk using chalk and having them “walk” on the letters can make learning their letters fun and interesting.

On warm days, giving them a bucket of water and a paintbrush and allowing them to “paint” on sidewalks or even buildings can be a fun way for them to practice.

When choosing books to begin reading with, choose those that have the same letters and words you’ve been working on. Start with books that contain short sentences of two to five words with simple two or three letter words.

Once your child gets used to matching letters to sounds and blending them together to make words, move on to fun books like beginning Dr. Suess stories and things similar.


Often, children begin with the things mentioned above and take off with reading in no time. Typically, it takes the average child being exposed to information about 6 times before they are able to remember and use the information with ease.

Occasionally, if you start too young, you will introduce the information an unlimited amount of times and your child will simply not seem to “soak it in”. Then, one day, it’s like a lightbulb turns on, and they are suddenly reading.

If you’ve been working on introducing letters and sounds for more than a year and your child is making no progress or very little progress (having only learned three or four letters, or they are still forgetting those letters only to learn one or two others, never advancing beyond a few) either they are simply not old enough to be ready to learn, or they may have a learning difference.

Children who are 7 or 8 who have not yet begun to grasp the information may need professional intervention, depending on their situation. It’s always good to start with an educator you know or your child’s pediatrician if you think there could possibly be a developmental issue. They can usually point you in the direction you’ll need to go to find help for your child.

If there is a developmental issue, don’t panic. There are many ways to help children with reading and writing difficulties, and research is improving daily. Don’t give up.

We’re also here to help at ArgoPrep! Stay tuned for more articles, worksheets, and resources on early reading!

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