The Basics of Reading

Check out this page for an introduction to teaching reading and spelling.

Reading – What’s the Problem?

This document has three main parts:

The Building Blocks of Reading – how we read.

Difficulties with Reading – why some people struggle to read well.

Dealing with Reading Difficulties – what we can do to help.


Reading is anything but simple. As soon as your eyes fall on a word a whole series of processes begins, which enable us to turn print into meaning.

Nerve impulses from the eyes stimulate part of the brain so we can see the dark print against a white page, and we can work out the shape of each letter. Another part of the brain turns these images into sounds, and turns those sounds into those words that make up our language.

Finally, another part of the brain turns that jumble of words into a sentence that has meaning.

So, there are lots of places and times where something may go wrong when children are learning to read. Everyone is different, so finding out what causes someone difficulty with reading is not as straightforward as a few tests.

When a child finds reading difficult they may, quite sensibly, decide they don’t want to do it any more. So attitude as well as skill can play a part in delaying progress.

The Building Blocks of Reading

There is skill involved in reading, and as we mature we build on these skills – and like other skills, practice is the best way to improve. That’s as true for adults as it is for children, which is why as adults we should challenge ourselves with different genres of book, more complex texts and new subject matter if we want to become more skilful.

There are three main reading skills: decoding, comprehension and retention (remembering).

Decoding (phonics)

New readers learn to recognise the letters of the alphabet by appearance, by name and by sound. They learn how to blend the sounds to make words, so the sounds ‘buh’, ‘aah’ and ‘guh’ are put together to make ‘bag’. This is called ‘synthetic phonics’ – which means ‘building with sounds’.

Decoding quickly becomes automatic for most readers when they practise. They can use their decoding skills to read unknown words. When you read this imaginary name Pizzle Floshgar you are decoding.

The length of a word also provides useful clues in decoding, so familiarise yourself the concept of syllables. When we read we sound out using vowel sounds, and a syllable is a single unit of pronunciation with one vowel sound e.g. e/lee/fant,   hos/pee/tal etc. Understanding syllables is essential to good spelling.

Note: although the practice of synthetic phonics has become normal in British primary schools in recent years it is by no means the only method used to teach children to read, and nor should it be. Evidence suggests that synthetic phonics particularly helps those with difficulties in reading, or who have English as an additional language. In any event, children also use single word recognition to read (essential for the many odd words that don’t obey regular phonic rules), as well as cloze skills (guessing an unknown word, using context to make a sensible prediction), pictures,   etc etc!


It is only possible to understand the written word once you have decoded it.

When young readers have become fast and fluent decoders they can begin to concentrate on the meaning of the text. Until then, it is difficult for them to both decode and understand. Once they are able to flow through the text quickly their brains can begin to really enjoy reading, and become engrossed in a story.

Reading aloud and reading silently are different skills that use different parts of our brain. When we read aloud it is much more difficult to concentrate on the meaning of the text, or to remember it. So, don’t be surprised if you find a struggling reader seems quite fluent when reading aloud to you, but has no idea about what they just read. It happens to all of us!


As readers progress they should be able to remember what they have read and summarise it.

Many struggling readers find this very difficult, often because the things they remember become jumbled in their minds, or they find it hard to turn their thoughts into organised, logical sentences. This is partly a language difficulty, but partly the result of lack of practice in both reading and verbal exercises.

That’s why talking about what we’ve read is very useful in becoming logical, organised thinkers.

Difficulties with Reading

Why do some people find reading so hard? There may be problems in decoding, comprehension or retention – or all three. But most experts agree that the main problem for most struggling readers is decoding. If readers don’t master this skill they are prevented from progressing.

About 85 per cent of children with learning difficulties have a significant problem with reading and related language skills.

Reading difficulties are often neurodevelopmental in nature: they are the result of the way a person’s brain is “wired”. As teachers and parents we just have to find the right way to teach each child: the one-size-fits all big classroom approach doesn’t usually work well for these students. In small groups, we can teach skills and strategies that can really improve a person’s reading. The sooner we tackle the problems, the better.

Difficulties with Decoding

The sounds that make up our language are called phonemes. Most children quickly develop the skills to break a word, such as ‘cat’ into the phonemes of ‘cuh’, ‘aah’ and ‘tuh’, and can then use the phonemes to write as well as read. This is called phonic reading.

Some children find this process very difficult, and experts have not found one single reason to explain why. Brain science is still in its early days.

The fact is, some children are not able to break words into phonemes in order to read them, or blend phonemes to make words. In some instances, a child may not have been ready to learn this skill when it was being taught at primary school – by the time they were developmentally ready the rest of the class had moved onto other things.

Here are some of the signs of decoding difficulties:

  1. Trouble sounding out words and recognizing words out of context.
  2. Confusion between letters and the sounds they make.
  3. Reading aloud is unusually slow and stilted.
  4. Reading without expression.
  5. Ignoring punctuation while reading.

Some students find it difficult to decode simply because they cannot see the written word very well. It is essential that students with reading difficulties have their eyesight checked professionally. In some instances, a pair of glasses can be all the help that is required!

It is helpful to remember that some students with language and communication difficulties just need a little more time to process information. So, after asking a question about meaning or decoding, give them up to ten seconds to think about it and come up with the answer. If you always step in to speed things up, they quickly learn it’s much less effort to sit back and wait for the answer to be given to them – and this stops them becoming active learners.

Some very bright children omit the phonic learning of words – they simply recognise and learn whole words (SWR – single word recognition) after listening and watching their parents read to them from an early age. It’s not a problem of course; these are the children who are reading fluently by the age of 4 or 5. However, it’s worth just helping them understand the principle of phonics because they will come across new vocabulary, and these children can sometimes be quite poor at spelling because they’ve never actively learnt how to chunk sounds into blocks to build words.

Difficulties with Comprehension

Obviously, if children can’t decode all the words in a sentence they will have trouble making sense of it. Sometimes, a limited vocabulary is the problem: a student manages to decode a crucial word but they don’t know its meaning, so they flounder. Students with comprehension problems lose concentration quickly, and can become bored and disinterested. It’s not surprising that they become “reluctant readers”.

Difficulties with Retention

If a student cannot decode they cannot understand. If they don’t understand, they will find it almost impossible to remember what they have read.

Some students have more general problems with their phonological memories – they find it hard to remember the look or sound of a word and this makes it difficult for them to learn new words, or follow a story.

Dealing with Reading Difficulties

At school:

The first step is to get to grips with decoding skills. In our reading classes we go back to basics and learn how to recognise phonemes, and how to blend them to read and write. This helps with spelling too.

We learn about the parts of a sentence, such as nouns, adjectives and verbs. We learn how a root word can be changed by endings (suffixes) and beginnings (prefixes) to do different jobs in a sentence e.g. the noun ‘art’ can become ‘artistic’ (an adjective), ‘artist’ (a noun) and ‘artfully’ (an adverb), ‘history’ can become ‘prehistoric’ etc.

We practise reading aloud, and silently. We read to gather facts and information, and summarise them. We do comprehension tasks that require students to read blocks of text and then answer questions about the meaning within the text. We ask students to summarise stories in terms of setting, characters, plot etc.

We work hard to increase vocabulary skills by exploring the meaning of words and encourage students to use new words in their writing and speech.

We constantly assess progress and tailor the lessons to suit the students within a group, changing groups as and when necessary.

We monitor a student’s reading habits, check reading on a weekly basis, monitor borrowing from the LRC, talk about books we love and recommend books to one another. We use a range of reading material including newspapers, magazines and books, both fact and fiction.

We ensure the reading classes are friendly and non-judgemental. If a student has difficulty in reading they are likely to feel insecure and lack confidence, so the classes are enjoyable and focussed on encouraging a student to improve their attitudes towards reading, develop their skills and increase feelings of self-esteem.

We praise the students for their successes, and reward them. We play lots of games that increase reading skills, so the students are motivated and enjoy their lessons. Most of the students love coming to reading class, and we see progress with all our readers. This progress often happens very quickly once the students begin to read for pleasure, and read regularly.

We know not everyone shares our love of books, but we believe everyone has the right to learn to read well.

At home:

  1. Play word games. We love Zynga Scramble with Friends app (which you can even play with your Facebook friends). It’s addictive, in a good way! Let us know of any others you find that you want to recommend and we’ll compile a list of online games resources.
  2. Encourage your child to read every day. The Metro is full of short, easy to read stories. Don’t force her to read aloud to you if she doesn’t want to. Put books or magazines in the bathroom, on the kitchen table – anywhere and everywhere!
  3. Let your child see you read. Talk about what you are reading, recommend books to your daughter, go to the library together, or visit bookshops.
  4. Think of other ways you can encourage your daughter to read if she’s really opposed to reading books. When you cook together, ask your daughter to go through a recipe with you. Ask her to go through the TV listings, or find the nutritional information on a cereal box, or read film/music reviews online. Help her to read letters you receive – it may help her understand why she needs to develop her reading skills for adult life.
  5. Quiz books are a great way of helping students develop reading skills, and increase general knowledge. Many students who have problems with reading exhibit very poor general knowledge, and learning facts quickly gives them a sense of empowerment they previously lacked.
  6. Establish a ‘word wall’ – the back of a door, or the fridge, works quite well! Every time a member of the family learns a new word they write it on a piece of card, with its definition, and stick it to the wall. Soon everyone will enjoy showing off their new extended vocabulary.


I’ve used various academic texts, my own experience and this website to compile this guide:

The website above which has more useful guidance for specific strategies for dealing with literacy difficulties at home and in school, and a section on dyslexia.

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