The process of reading, which most proficient readers take for granted, is anything but simple. The moment our eyes fall on a passage of text, a complex set of physical, neurological, and cognitive processes is set in motion, enabling us to convert print into meaning: As the eyes track across the page in a smooth, coordinated movement, nerve impulses from each retina simultaneously stimulate an area near the back of the brain that allows us to distinguish the light and dark areas on a page. A region of the brain farther forward converts the letters and words our eyes see into abstract representations of sounds and translates those representations into language. Finally, another part of the brain converts the collection of words in any given sentence into meaningful ideas.
At the most basic level, readers recognize that letters represent the sounds of spoken words. As children master each letter of the alphabet, they map these letters to the sounds they represent, a process that enables them to begin to decipher whole words. By breaking up words into their component sounds, called phonemes, and sequencing the individual phonemes in their proper order, children can sound out words. For example, the word “bag” is made up of three phonemes, “buh,” “aah,” and “guh.” Children who decode easily hear these three sounds, not because the ear hears them that way — the ear hears one pulse of sound — but because the brain automatically separates them. With time and practice, decoding becomes automatic for the normally progressing reader.
The chief objective of reading is to gain understanding. This ultimately depends on one’s ability to decode and then master “sight words,” the words that can be recognized immediately without having to sound them out. When word recognition is automatic, readers are better able to concentrate on the meaning of whole sentences and paragraphs. This allows them to distinguish between the main points of a passage and ideas that can be overlooked, and to connect what they read to related pieces of information elsewhere in the passage.
The last, and arguably most important, objective in reading is retaining, or remembering, what we read. Doing so relies heavily on the other two skills — decoding and comprehension — and is further aided by a reader’s ability to organize and summarize the content of what they read and connect it to what they already know. Reading retention enables students to keep information in their long-term memories and to call upon and apply it in the future.