Teaching How to Read

On of the biggest challenges, a primary school teacher faces, is to help her student learn to read. This is difficult because reading is not an easy skill and ability to acquire. It is very different from the oral language which a child acquires so effortlessly in natural settings before she/he comes to school. There are many sub-skills and cognitive abilities interwoven in it. The important question is: What do we understand by reading? Generally teachers think that it is enough if the child is able to read aloud textbooks. They do not really worry about whether the child has been able to understand what has been written in the textbooks or outside them.

Reading is a creative enterprise because the reader does not read aloud the written text as it is but also makes meaning of the text based on her experiences. In reading it is important to grasp the meaning of the text. When we read, our mind and eyes do not go into the details of the letters used, punctuations or even each word. What this means is that we do not have to look at each component of the sentence while reading. If we had to do that, keeping in mind all these small details about letters, punctuations, words, etc. it would become burdensome and boring and we might not be able to make any sense out of what we read. And people would not be able to read at the pace that they do.


The child actually reads in chunks, her eyes constantly moving back and forth and up and down. The child’s eyes look at a part of the written text and a child grasps the rest of it based on her previous experience and anticipation. This anticipation and prior knowledge of what would be there is based on the experience of the reader. The small piece that the child sees tells her what could be possibly written and as the child glances at another small piece, the child is able to know without going into all details. In the occasional case that it does not connect with what comes ahead, you go back and check again. Therefore, reading includes the following:

  • Reading is to absorb meaning of the written texts.
  • Reading is to be able to form or build concepts, link ideas and keep them in mind.
  • Be able to understand the text, follow its logic and its premises.
  • Reading does not mean recognition of alphabets or being able to speak aloud words and sentences but is much more. For example, it means understanding what is written and using that to build one’s own perspective and understanding.
  • Reading does not mean pronouncing pieces of the word but is to be able to have a dialogue with the texts, assimilate that into experiences and conceptual structure.
  • Reading is a holistic process. It includes shapes of letters, the sounds linked with them, sentence structures, word and sentence meaning and the ability to anticipate and predict.
  • The important thing in reading is to absorb meaning from the written information or symbols.


Generally teaching children how to read is a very difficult task for teachers. This is because there is no one simple and infallible method for it. Each method suggested has its limitations. Nobody but a teacher can decide which method would be appropriate in her situation. In spite of this difficulty, once acquired, reading is an extremely energizing enterprise and a large part of life of the child depends on it. If we are able to make the child interested in books and reading, then there is no limit to what she can read and grow to. The question really is: How do we make children learn to read. We have to think about children who being bored with repeating and copying letters or words and reading them aloud repeatedly, dropout or get disinterested beyond recovery. These tedious tasks may lead to only a few children learning to read.


All fluent readers develop the knowledge necessary to read but they develop it from the effort to read rather than by being told. This process is akin to the process of the child acquiring oral language. The child is able to develop the rules for articulation and comprehension without being taught any formal rules. There is no evidence to suggest that teaching grammar helps in making children develop the ability to speak. There is also no evidence indicating that practicing pronunciation or other non-reading tasks help in developing reading ability. Generally what are known as rules of reading are merely instructions that indicate the steps to begin reading. Learning to read is not about remembering rules, children will learn to read by the enterprise of reading itself.

For reading, the child has to remember rules of pronunciation and follow them

One widely accepted view is that the ability to read comes from being able to link sound to its corresponding symbolic representation. We, however, know reading does not end or begin at being able to pronounce the text. We have to grasp the meaning even before we pronounce the word unless we know the word we cannot speak it. Converting letters to sound is not only unnecessary but also a waste of effort. If we look carefully it is obvious that a fluent reader does not get into changing letters to sounds. Such a process does not help in making meaning; it rather takes one away from it. In spite of this it is often argued that children will have to develop competence in pronunciation of the word, part by part, as per letters used otherwise they will not be able to recognize words they have not seen earlier.

Emphasis on teaching one letter or word at a time

Another widespread belief is that some children find it difficult to learn the names of things, some of the letters and some words. It is suggested that the only way for these is repeated practice. This is an extreme and erroneous simplification of the learning process. Children in initial 5-6 years of their life, learn hundreds of words everyday. Most of these words are names and are learnt generally in the first attempt only. The process through which children learn to categorize groups or sets is quite instructive. They look at the situation where the name is being used and identify characteristics that can help them recognize it in future as well. They make hypothesis to understand a concept and repeatedly test and modify it. The errors that children make are windows to help us understand the way they progress including their hypothesis.

Children must be discouraged from anticipating and guessing, always reading accurately

A fluent reader makes maximum use of very little visible information. It is easier to read for meaning than to read each word. Reading fast is easier than reading slowly. Whatever we have said till now implies that reading carefully is not fluent reading and reading without a purpose is not reading at all. When we read an unfamiliar, or a complex text, a complicated novel, a technical article or something in a foreign language, even though it may feel necessary, we know that it is difficult to move ahead sentence by sentence, continually referring to the dictionary. We may feel that we should slow down and read slowly, but actually the best strategy in this situation is to accelerate and keep on reading. Whatever we have said so far suggests the common principle that continuing to read itself suggests the meaning. In a text, the best way to understand an unknown word is to infer meaning from the remaining text. The best way to find the meaning of a difficult text is to keep on reading it.

Emphasis should be on reading word by word

The fact that recognition or learning of separate words is one of the most difficult way to learn is another reason for not emphasizing word recognition. A fluent reader uses many other hints for this. When a letter comes in a word or when a word comes in a meaningful sentence, it is easier to recognize it. Recognizing words is not the most important component of reading. To be able to identify a word detached from other words requires many more visible hints in comparison to a word that is placed in a sentence. Since our ability to absorb visible symbols and keep them in memory is limited, therefore a process requiring more visible information makes reading difficult. The most important aspect of learning to read is to recognize that the minimum possible visible information should be utilized for grasping what is written. Fluent readers do not read words, they read the content. Reading for meaning is easier than reading words. Children certainly know this because reading each word puts a great stress on their ability to absorb information.

Reading correctly and with accuracy is imperative

No one can learn without errors. If we do not accept the possibility of error we cannot even learn to read names of animals, plants, trees or read letters, words etc. Actually this is the biggest barrier in learning to read as children may not make an effort to read due to the fear of making mistakes. The errors made by children during reading are a natural and essential part of the process of learning to read.

Point out mistakes as soon as they occur

It is easy for the teacher to point out the mistakes made by the child in reading a particular word. This, however, does not help the child. She is not reading for word recognition, she is reading for meaning. If the child is practicing word recognition and wants to know whether she has correctly identified the word, an immediate comment can be useful. But if the child is reading to understand meaning, immediate comments can in fact be harmful.

Beware of encouraging children to read on their own

Children often acquire many aspects of reading that are not taught by anyone else. If we appreciate that the child is capable of identifying such complex rules on her own, our method of teaching her would completely change. Instead of purity, accuracy and correcting errors, we would then concentrate on how to provide more and more interesting and challenging material to children.
Reading must be purposeful and challenging.

The reading material must be useful, meaningful and challenging for the reader. Whenever we read something, we read it for some purpose. These could be, for example, reading for fun, reading due to curiosity, reading to understand the sequence of events in a story, to know what happens at the end of story, to learn about, what is happening around and find whether such materials are even being written or not. If they are given challenges of this kind, challenges that give them opportunity to learn more, talk about what they have learnt and share their experiences, they will learn to read faster. If reaching the meaning of a text to find something that they want to know is a challenge, they will feel inspired to make an effort. When we provide an environment laden with written texts in a class, actually we construct an exciting classes. An environment enriched by meaningful and challenging written material inspires the child to learn to read.

Contextual reading material

Children learn language and learn to read in context. Stories and poems also form interesting contexts. While relating a story you should stop in between and let children complete what would follow. Many important concepts are natural parts of the stories (for example- big, small, near-far, fat-thin etc.). Children acquire or consolidate them easily through a story. The context of the story introduces these and when enacted their meaning gets clearer. Besides, the child gets an opportunity to place herself in different characters and in imaginary situations. Initially children mimic and copy only the gross visible features of the characters. For example, their way of walking, making sounds etc. These may include the jumping as the rabbit, kicking as the horse, wake up call as a cock etc. It is these contexts that help children to learn to read. Using familiar sentence structures While reading children will anticipate what lies ahead on the basis of the language they know. The closer the reading material is to the language of the child, the easier would be learning how to read. Therefore, it is necessary that children relate to the material that they have read or listened to and they should be able to find ways of using it.

Reading Corner

It is important that there should be a corner in the class where selected children’s literature is placed for children to read. These books can also be used to ‘read aloud’ stories to the children. Listening to a story that has been read is extremely helpful in learning to read. Whenever a familiar story is read aloud many times children gradually absorb the order of events, syntax and other aspects of the story. All this helps them to read with anticipation of what lies ahead. For children, to continue to be interested in the reading corner, good quality and new books must be added periodically.

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