The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The Invisible Components of Reading

on September 15, 2015

   The essay  I offer today is one I wrote for the elementary section of the National Council of Teachers of English a few years ago.  Because that was a limited audience I have decided to post it here for all those teachers involved in teaching reading at any level.


Although the components of reading I’m thinking about aren’t really invisible, they are largely ignored in teaching reading in classrooms because children have begun to learn them on their own long before they come to school. Below I will identify six such components that teachers should give some attention to as they work with students to further develop reading competence. The children most in need of this kind of support are those living in poverty or not having English as their native language.

  1. Listening /Speaking Vocabulary—Children begin learning words in their first year of life and their vocabulary grows as they interact with adults and other children in their pre-school years. Research done in the mid-twentieth century indicates that between the ages of 3 and 8, healthy, well cared for children learn approximately 20 new words a day. Even more interesting is recent research that counted the number of words exchanged between pre-school children and their primary caregivers and found that socio-economic factors made a huge difference. Based on extrapolations from observations made in the homes of children between 7 months and 3 years of age, children in welfare families and their caregivers exchanged an average of 10 million words by the age of 4; working class children 30 million; and professional class children more than 50 million. There were also significant differences in the content of exchanges in families at different economic levels, ranging from commands such as, “Pick up your toys,” to discussion questions such as, “What should we do this afternoon?” Just think what these differences in oral vocabulary mean when a child begins formal reading instruction in school.
  2. Intonation Patterns of Spoken Language–Although we rarely notice them, there are defined patterns of rising and falling tones and word emphasis within every spoken sentence. Think about this one: “Have you washed your hands?” It can have three different meanings depending on whether the speaker emphasizes “you,” “washed,” or “hands.” Yet, nothing on a written page suggests those differences. If literate adults were to read sentences as written, they would give every word the same voice tone and emphasis, stripping away meaning. Unfortunately, when children work hard decoding a text word-by-word, that they do just that and, as a result, don’t understand what they’re reading.
  3. Sentence structure—By the time children enter school, their basic oral grammar is fairly well developed and acceptable by the standards of their cultural or regional dialect. We may not like the grammar some students use, but it’s fine at home. Although young children can’t say whether a word is a “noun” “verb,” or “adjective,” and some may not use standard word endings, they do know how to sequence words in a sentence. No child says, “ Dog I my fed.”   Their knowledge of sentence structure helps children get at least some meaning from sentences with unknown words, such as, “Don’t step on that echinoderm!”
  4. Literary Forms and Conventions—Children who are familiar with fairy tales, poems, fables, and sayings find it much easier to read new examples of those literary forms. When beginning a new fairy tale, for example, most children already know what to expect from the hero, heroine and villain. They are also familiar with patterns of threes in characters’ tasks and the obstacles in their paths. Stock phrases such as “Once upon a time” and “ They lived happily ever after,” are read effortlessly even though those phrases are not a part of a real child’s world.
  5. Reasoning—Unfortunately, too much of today’s reading instruction emphasizes following rules and memorizing procedures. And because that is what is taught, children think that’s what they are supposed to do. If teachers emphasized thinking more and formulas less, children encountering unknown words would do a better job of figuring them out on their own. Take, for example, the sentence, “ The cowboy jumped onto his cayuse and galloped away.” When reading silently a young reader who knows something about cowboys from television shows or being read to can easily deduce that a “cayeuse” is some kind of horse and that “galloped “ is what horses do, and just go on reading.
  6. Background knowledge—Indisputably, this invisible component is the one that most strongly affects understanding after children have aquired ease in identifying words. When young children know people outside their family, places beyond their neighborhood, and things other than the content of their homes, their ability to read increases exponentially. To take a simple—and common—example, I have not met many young readers who could not read the words “tyrannosaurus rex’’ in context. Because so many children have seen pictures and heard information about this dinosaur in and out of school, they can not only read its name but also some words about its habitat and behavior. The more children know of the world in general and its contents in particular, the better equipped they are to read with understanding and master the various academic subjects covered in school.

Given the importance of these invisible components of reading, the question for teachers   is how can they be incorporated into the school literacy program without turning them into formal lessons or repeating the experiences children already have in their homes and outside them.

First and foremost, I advocate that teachers read aloud regularly to students of any age from materials they are not likely to read on their own. I would aim for a healthy mix of fiction and non-fiction–including pieces from newspapers and magazines– to introduce unfamiliar places, people and things. As teachers read, they should pause from time to time to explain unfamiliar words, show pictures, and allow students to ask questions,

Another good strategy is to incorporate more oral use of standard written language into the curriculum, in the form of poems, songs, chants, and games that children learn and voice in chorus. Other appealing formats for children to practice written language in oral formats are puppet shows, role playing, and the re-enactment of stories.

Finally, I suggest using all manner of visual materials regularly to increase students’ background knowledge, help explain new words, and make challenging reading material more understandable. If they don’t know what a word is, don’t give a dictionary definition, show them a picture.

Before signing off, I want to mention one more invisible component of reading not directly supported by research: children’s beliefs about their relationship to books. When it comes to developing reading competence, nothing is more powerful than believing “Books are full of wonderful things. I bet I will like this one, and I’m sure I can read it!”

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2 responses to “The Invisible Components of Reading

  1. Hello, Joanne. Another wonderful post; thank you for providing such clear, concise and well-illustrated examples of the “invisible components of reading”. I wanted to add one more that is often overlooked: storytelling. Teachers should tell stories to children (storytelling is qualitatively different than read alouds, which are wonderful of course), and more importantly, children should be taught to write (or create if they are not quite writing yet) and tell their own stories. When they are ready, they tell their stories to their peers, parents, community etc. Students’ vocabulary, syntax, writing and socio-emotional growth increases when they engage in storytelling (or performance literacy, as I call it!). Thanks again for a wonderful treasure. Best, Brett Dillingham

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