What's Important in Reading?

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Everyone—parents, teachers, and politicians—has an opinion on what’s important in reading instruction. Often the debate centers on phonics: Some people believe that phonics is the most important factor because students need to be able to decode the words they’re reading, but others consider phonics to be less important than comprehension because the purpose of reading is to make meaning from text. The view taken in this text is that there are five important factors in developing capable readers:

  • Word identification
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension
  • Motivation

Teachers address all five of these factors through direct instruction, by reading aloud to students every day, and by providing daily opportunities for students to read books at their own reading level.

Word Identification

Capable readers have a large bank of words that they recognize instantly and automatically because they can’t stop and analyze every word as they read (LaBerge & Samuels, 1976). Students learn to read phonetically regular words, such as baking and first, and high-frequency words, such as there and would. In addition, they learn word-identification strategies to figure out unfamiliar words they encounter while reading. They use phonic analysis to read raid, strap, and other phonetically regular words, syllabic analysis to read jungle, election, and other multisyllabic words, and morphemic analysis to read omnivorous, millennium, and other words with Latin and Greek word parts. Through a combination of instruction and reading practice, students’ knowledge of words continues to grow.

Phonics, the set of phoneme-grapheme relationships, is an important part of word-identification instruction in the primary grades, but it’s only one part of word identification because English is not an entirely phonetic language. During the primary grades, children also learn to recognize at least 300 high-frequency words, such as what, said, and come, that can’t be sounded out. Older students learn more sophisticated word-identification strategies about dividing words into syllables and recognizing root words and affixes.


Capable readers have learned to read fluently—quickly and with expression. Three components of fluency are reading speed, word recognition, and prosody (Rasinski, 2004). Students need to read at least 100 words per minute to be considered fluent readers, and most children reach this speed by third grade. Speed is important because it’s hard for students to remember what they’re reading when they read slowly. Word recognition is related to speed because readers who automatically recognize most of the words they’re reading read more quickly than those who don’t. Prosody, the ability to read sentences with appropriate phrasing and intonation, is important because when readers read expressively, the text is easier to understand (Dowhower, 1991).

Developing fluency is important because readers don’t have unlimited cognitive resources, and both word identification and comprehension require a great deal of mental energy. During the primary grades, the focus is on word identification, and students learn to recognize hundreds of words, but in fourth grade—after most students have become fluent readers—the focus changes to comprehension. Students who are fluent readers have the cognitive resources available for comprehension, but students who are still word-by-word readers are focusing on word identification.

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