Misunderstood Minds
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Basics of Reading

The seemingly simple task of reading is anything but simple. The moment our eyes fall on a word, a complex set of processes -- physical, neurological, and cognitive -- is set in motion, enabling us to convert print into meaning. Nerve impulses from the eyes stimulate an area near the back of the brain that allows us to see the light and dark areas on a page that define each letter. A region of the brain further forward allows us to convert the letters we see into sounds and those sounds into language. Finally, another part of the brain converts the jumble of words in any given sentence into something meaningful that we can interpret.

When a child starts school, reading becomes a primary way of learning. Reading is a means to understanding the world and a fundamental skill required to succeed. But it is a skill that takes years to fully develop. And for some children, those years can be arduous and frustrating.

Helping a student who is struggling with reading begins with understanding the difficulties. In general, a reading difficulty represents a breakdown somewhere in the process of learning to read. However, individual difficulties are as individual as the child, and other factors may be related. Since there are so many interrelated neurodevelopmental and physical tasks involved in reading, finding the problem may not be easy. Testing for the student and consultation with teachers, reading specialists, and others will help significantly in understanding what is going on in a specific case.

The Components of Reading

Learning to read is a sequential process; each new skill builds on the mastery of previously learned skills. Each step in the process relates to one of the three components of reading: decoding, comprehension, or retention. These are the component tasks of reading and also in a general view, the progressive steps in learning to read, which move from sounds, to words, to sentences and paragraphs.


At a basic level children 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. This mapping enables children to begin to decipher whole words. By breaking up words into their component sounds, phonemes, children can sound words out. 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 practice, decoding becomes automatic for the normally progressing reader. Children see words and read them without struggling, even if they don't know the meaning of every word. Decoding is a foundation that children need to read quickly and fluently.

Try ItTry it yourself. Experience a decoding difficulty.


The second task in reading is understanding the written word. Comprehension ultimately depends on the ability to decode and master sight words. When that word recognition becomes automatic young readers are better able to concentrate on the meaning of whole sentences and paragraphs while they read. As they read, children also learn to simultaneously connect information within the context of a selection, relate what they are reading to what they already know, and stay focused.


The final task in reading is retaining, or remembering, what has been read. Children must be able to organize and summarize the content and readily 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.

Try ItTry it yourself. Experience a retention difficulty.

READINGBasics | Difficulties | Responses

Nathan Van Hoy UP CLOSE:
Paying Attention

How do learning differences become apparent? Lois Geer, Nathan VanHoy's mother, explains how she discovered Nathan's reading difficulty and how she initially responded.

Q: How did you notice something was up?
A: When [the kindergarten teacher was] tested him for reading, she didn't feel he could read at all, and we thought he'd been reading since about four-and-a-half, five years old.

Q: What were the implications?
A: Who do I talk to? Who can support me? What do you do? Who knows the ropes? Who can I call who already knows the ropes and can save me some time and get me to where we need to be with Nathan?

Q: Were you depressed?
A: Yes, it was real frightening I think, mostly frightening to think that you're responsible for developing and guiding a child and you aren't equipped. You don't come with the skills to know how to do that. So for a little while I think it was kind of shock and disbelief, then it was like, get busy. There's not time. This is a critical issue that has to be resolved immediately.

Q: You thought he was reading?
A: The next night I remember sitting down with a book, but one that he had read and told me he could read, and watched him read the words verbatim. And I stopped and I looked at him and his eyes -- and his eyes were not in the book, but [looking] into this next room. He had memorized the entire book.
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