There are several strands to reading.

Sight Words in the Early Stages

Recognition of words such as the child’s own name and places like McDonald’s, are sometimes referred to as ‘sight’ words. Later, words such as ‘said’ and ‘they’ will be in this category as they cannot be easily worked out, but will be read by sight or ‘recognised’. These will be added to as time goes on and quick recognition of them will aid fluency.

Common sight words are vital for fluency.

Phonic skills

in reading, simply matching letters or letter combinations to their corresponding sound. This is the phonic route and the most important. Teaching usually commences with single sounds – vowels and consonants, followed by blends such as ‘gl’ or ‘tr’ and ‘consonant digraphs’ where two ‘sounds’ combine to make a new one – ‘th’ ‘ch’ ‘sh’ ‘qu’. These one syllable words are soon met in early readers or are learnt as single words. Gradually, more complex written forms of phonemes* will be introduced on their own or in the context of a word or story.

However, in the process of reading one will always come across new words which will need to be ‘decoded’**. It is here, that the ability to break words down into their component parts and syllables (if they are of more than one syllable) is vital. Some decoding skills are essential for the development of the ability to read. Often, if the first, or first and second, syllable of a multi-syllabic word is worked out, the word can often then be “got” by using a combination of decoding and the meaning of the text.

Phonic teaching and practice is vital. At the same time, one is looking for recognition and use of context.

I will not go into detail about the whole area of spelling, but the same principles apply. Some children initially find spelling easier, while most initially find reading easier, presumably, because the letters are there already for them to use. Certainly, a little while later, reading will be in advance of spelling.

Of course, the huge problem in learning to read (and more especially in learning to spell) in the English Language is the fact that many of the 44 sounds of the language can be represented by various different combinations of consonants and vowels. For example there are several ways to write the ‘long’ vowel sound ‘A’ – ay (play), -ai (rain), a- e (cake), -ei (neighbour), -ey (prey, they), -a (acorn) and fourteen ways to write ‘or’.

* Smallest units of meaningful sound.

**  Decoding – there appear to be two common usages of this word: 1. the various skills a person uses to read words and 2. the ‘sounding out’ or breaking down of words into their component parts

Underlying skills in reading and more essentially in spelling is ‘phonological awareness’ i.e. awareness of how spoken language works in words – all the ‘saying and singing nursery rhymes, listening to these with a child and looking at picture books’ (see How does it all start?) build awareness that words, both spoken and written, are made up of individual sounds and that sentences are made of individual words. Where phonological awareness comes into its own in reading is decoding longer words where children may not have ‘picked up’ the correct pronunciation and so have difficulty in breaking them into the correct syllables and blending these back into real words. In turn, reading will improve speech, language and mental performance.


At the early stages, most of what is read is generally understood. Later texts or books become more complex or dense and more refined comprehension skills are called for. When it is a matter of reading fiction, visualisation of scenes is extremely important. A wide and varied vocabulary is a bonus. There are various other skills to be refined as the reading material becomes more complex: reasoning, deduction and setting the text in a more general context are key; likewise, being used to hearing and using a certain amount of figurative language. Alongside this is the need for the formalities of written comprehension for examinations.