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.


Capable readers have larger vocabularies than less capable readers do (McKeown, 1985). They learn words at the amazing rate of 7 to 10 per day. Learning a word is developmental: Children move from recognizing that they’ve seen or heard the word before to learning one meaning, and then to knowing several ways to use the word (Allen, 1999). Vocabulary knowledge is important in reading because it’s easier to decode words that you’ve heard before, and it’s easier to comprehend what you’re reading when you’re already familiar with some words related to the topic.

Reading is the most effective way that students expand their vocabularies. Capable readers do more reading than less capable students, so they learn more words. Not only do they do more reading, but the books capable students read contain more age-appropriate vocabulary than the easier books that lower-performing students read (Stahl, 1999).


Readers use their past experiences and the text to construct comprehension, a meaning that’s useful for a specific purpose (Irwin, 1991). Comprehension is a complex process that involves both reader and text factors (Sweet & Snow, 2003). While they’re reading, readers are actively involved in thinking about what they already know about a topic. They set a purpose for reading, read strategically, and make inferences using cues in the text. Readers also use their knowledge about texts: They think about the genre and the topic of the text, and they use their knowledge of text structure to guide their reading.

Capable readers are strategic: They use predicting, visualizing, connecting, questioning, summarizing, and other strategies to think about and understand what they’re reading (Pressley, 2002). They also learn to monitor whether they’re comprehending and learn how to take action to solve problems and clarify confusions when they occur. Teaching comprehension involves introducing strategies through minilessons, demonstrating how capable readers use the strategies, and involving students in supervised practice activities.

Through these activities, teachers scaffold students and then gradually release responsibility for comprehending to students (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983). Teachers withdraw support slowly once students show that they can use strategies independently while they’re reading. Of course, even when students are using strategies independently, they may need increased scaffolding when they’re reading more difficult texts, texts about unfamiliar topics, or different genres (Pardo, 2004).


Capable readers are motivated. They’re engaged while they’re reading and expect to be successful. Motivation is intrinsic; it involves feeling self-confident and viewing the activity as pleasurable (Cunningham & Cunningham, 2002). Students are more likely to be motivated when they’re reading high-interest texts, when they work collaboratively with classmates, when they have opportunities to make choices, when not everything is graded, and when they feel ownership of their work (Gallagher, 2003). Motivation isn’t something that teachers can force on students; instead, it’s an innate desire that students must develop themselves.

Teaching reading isn’t as easy as deciding whether to focus on phonics or comprehension. Teachers need to focus on all five factors so that students develop a bank of instantly recognizable words, become fluent readers, acquire an extensive vocabulary, learn to comprehend effectively, and stay motivated to become capable readers.