Infants are born with specialized hearing capabilities that facilitate their ability to learn to speak. These capabilities focus on the capturing of the individual sounds that make up words. These sounds are called “phonemes”.
A phoneme is defined as the smallest unit of sound making up spoken language. There are approximately 400 phonemes in world languages; English uses about 44 of these. The smallest number of phonemes in a language is 11, and the most is 112.
Phonemes are used to build words like bricks are used to build houses. You can say them in various combinations and form a very large number of words (English has the most words of any language, about 250,000). Our infant phoneme capturing skills have a time limit on them called a critical period. If we are not exposed to phonemes prior to 1 year of age, we can permanently lose the ability to hear some phonemes. For example, the author of this page (James Royer) has experienced not being able to hear the differences in distinctly different words (distinct to the native speaker) in both Mandarin Chinese and an African language called Hausa. Our ability to capture and hear phonemes deteriorates over time even with phonemes that are within our range of acquisition beyond age 1. This is the reason that acquisition of a second language with excellent accent is increasingly difficult beyond age 18.
Phoneme capture not only provides the building blocks for speech, it is also vitally important in learning to read. Written languages are designed to capture the sounds of speech in graphic form. In alphabetic languages such as English, the building block role of phonemes in both speech and writing is obvious. Children who go through the phoneme capture stage of development with no difficulties have the beginning foundation they need to learn to read.
Most children acquire the phonemic structure of their language with little difficulty. However, some children do have problems capturing phonemes, and difficulties with phoneme capture can produce difficulties in speech acquisition, difficulties in correctly pronouncing words (speech articulation problems), and ultimately, difficulties in learning to read.
> Learn how these difficulties are associated with dyslexia
Generally, by age 3 a child has well developed language skills and is adding new vocabulary at an astonishing pace. During the age period from 3-5 children from economically advantaged backgrounds are exposed to written language in books for children. Parents and other care-givers read to their children and they often provide explicit instruction in letter names and letter sounds by working with alphabet books.
The alphabetic principle is the realization by the child that there is a relationship between the sounds that make up spoken words, and the sounds that letters make. This leads to the realization that written words can be used to represent spoken speech. This is not a trivial discovery on the part of the child. Many children with reading problems treat written language as a kind of code that some people have access to, but they don’t. For them, there is a mysterious and magical aspect to reading written text. But early recognition that letters code sounds that can be used to form words takes much of the magic out of the process. Exposure to books and caregivers who read to children is critical in acquiring the alphabetic principle.
Phonological awareness involves the development of the ability to decompose spoken words into constituent sounds and to then manipulate those sounds. A phonologically aware child, for example, can tell you if two words end with the same sound (they rhyme) or tell you what the word “boat” would sound like if you left off the b. Phonological awareness provides the foundation for the ability to use sounding out strategies to identify words we don’t know, and it provides an important first step in being able to spell. Again, early exposure to books and being read to provides the foundation for the development of phonological awareness.
Many children from economically advantaged backgrounds arrive in kindergarten and first grade with well-developed letter recognition skills and intact alphabetic principle and phonological awareness skills. However, children from disadvantaged backgrounds often do not have these skills when they begin school, and this places them behind their more advantaged peers in terms of acquisition of reading skill. Approximately 20% of children in U.S. schools enter school at-risk for the development of reading problems. Many of those children are at-risk because of the lack of early exposure to reading activities.
When we talk about the automaticity of letter and word recognition we mean that these activities occur without conscious thought. To understand why automaticity of letter and word recognition is important we need to understand a component of the human cognitive system called “working memory.” The human memory system is divided into three components called declarative memory, procedural memory, and working memory. Declarative memory and procedural memory store vast amounts of information, sort of like a hard disk on a computer can store massive amounts of information. Working memory is analogous to RAM memory on a computer; it holds information that the person is currently using to perform an activity. Working memory has two very important limitations. First, it can only hold about 7 items of separate information at a time, and second, information can only be held in working memory for about 10 seconds. If these capacity limitations are exceeded, things decay from working memory and must then be re-entered.
Imagine you are a beginning reader who must think about letters and letter sounds, and then blending the letter sounds to form words. Before you reached the end of a sentence the beginning parts of the sentence would have decayed from working memory and you would have to re-read what you just read. This is why automaticity—the ability to recognize letters and words without conscious thought—is so critical to skilled reading.
Automatic word recognition skills develop as a function of lots of practice. We become better readers by reading, and there is no other way to develop automatic reading skills. Readers who do not develop automatic letter and word recognition skills are certain to experience reading comprehension difficulties. A child can read words with 100% accuracy, but if those words are not read rapidly enough to get a complete thought in working memory within the 10 second constraint, comprehension will be difficult.
Parents and teachers should be acutely aware of whether children are developing good automaticity skills. A rough rule of thumb is that a child is reading with acceptable automaticity if the child can accurately read grade level text at less than one-second per word with understanding. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are often slower than this benchmark, and children with specific reading disabilities (dyslexia) are almost always slow and/or inaccurate in reading individual words.
A simplistic view of reading comprehension is that it is text decoding plus listening comprehension. While accurate, this simple definition obscures the complexity of the comprehension process, both for reading and for listening. The complex view of comprehension shows that it consists of low level skills (letter and word recognition) that can be performed automatically, and higher-level processes that require conscious attention. These high-level involve activities such as inference making and detailed thought about what something you just read means.
Often when a skilled reader reads, particularly if the text is not complex (a romance novel for example), reading comprehension is almost an effortless process. Eyes skim over the page and the reader is aware of the meaning of what is being read and is completely unaware of letters, individual words, word definitions, and whether a word is a noun or a verb.
With more complicated reading material much more cognitive effort comes into play. First, we must have the background knowledge necessary to comprehend the text. To illustrate this, ask yourself what the following sentence means: The notes were sour because the seam was split. If you are like the average person you draw a blank. You know what the individual words mean, but the combination of the words makes no sense. Now I give you one word: bagpipes. Most people now have a sense of what the sentence means. We comprehend the sentence because we can relate the content of the sentence to something we already know. This is a critical part of the comprehension process. When we comprehend, we must always be able to relate what we are reading or listening to something we already know. No relating, no comprehension.
Poor automatic reading skills and lack of prior knowledge are certainly two factors that effect reading comprehension. The automaticity of letter and word recognition has been discussed previously. The importance of prior knowledge can be illustrated with an example. When a skilled reader reads, particularly if the text is not complex (a romance novel for example), reading comprehension is almost an effortless process. Eyes skim over the page and the reader is aware of the meaning of what is being read and is completely unaware of letters, individual words, word definitions, and whether a word is a noun or a verb. Now substitute a chemistry textbook for the romance novel. Even a reader with good knowledge of chemistry slows way down and thinks a lot more about what the text means.
Another thing that the example above illustrates is the importance of strategic reading. A good reader reads the romance novel and the chemistry text differently. Readers who do not have a sense of when to change their reading activities will have difficulty understanding text that requires thinking in addition to simply recognizing text on a page.