Essential Building Blocks for Reading Comprehension, Part I

Many of us don’t actually remember learning how to read. We may remember sitting on our kindergarten carpet squares, picking out new picture books at the school book fair, or feeling the excitement of turning the final page of a book read independently for the first time. Those fond memories are certainly associated with the skills one must acquire in order to first learn to read; however, we cannot necessarily remember the actual process of learning how to comprehend the words on the page. Thinking about it now, reading almost seems like an innate skill, as though reading just happens. If only that were the case…


Sadly, reading comprehension can be a labor intensive task for many young learners. Some children can fool us on the surface; they may learn to read fluently, briskly, and accurately, as though they are natural-born readers. However, reading fluency and comprehension do not always go hand in hand. Children may acquire the necessary skills to read clearly and accurately, but, try as they might, these same kids may simultaneously struggle with the ability to digest or comprehend a text. So, if it is not a natural or innate skill, what goes into reading comprehension anyway?


Part of the reason why reading comprehension can be a struggle for many learners is the fact that the process involves a compilation of other complex skills. Such foundational skills necessary for children to begin to master reading comprehension include: fluency, phonemic awareness, accessing prior knowledge/making connections, vocabulary, syntactical rules/conventions, working memory, and attentiveness. 


Fluency Strategies

  • Review sight words and high frequency words regularly
  • Turn fluency practice into a game by setting timed records, racing against the clock, and matching spoken sight words with word cards
  • Practice pronunciation by modeling and rehearsing
  • Clap period stops and snap comma pauses to improve punctuation recognition
  • Repeat readings to help with word recognition
  • Always read aloud to and with your child
  • Model and practice reading with expression
  • Give your different characters a “voice” while reading aloud to your child
  • Preview or expose children to the new or unfamiliar words before giving them the reading passage
  • Utilize poetry, nursery rhymes, and songs to practice fluency


Phonics Strategies

  • Use photos/images to match objects with corresponding beginning sounds
  • Practice sorting words into “like” sound piles using word cards
  • Create a word wall in your child’s bedroom or playroom
  • Play “blend bingo” using bingo cards and corresponding images of words that include each consonant blend
  • Use Scrabble tiles to “build” sounds 
  • Use rhyming strategies to group/categorize words
  • Play “which one of these is not like the others?” using word cards
  • Use tapping, clapping, or any other kinesthetic method for sounding out words


Background Knowledge Strategies

  • Expose your child to a variety of text types and different genres to create a repertoire of background information
  • Incorporate alternate media, such as movies, art, news, television, etc.
  • Teach new words in categories to help solidify new terms with prior knowledge
  • Practice word mapping to build connections
  • Compare and contrast words and concepts while reading
  • Preview new texts or frontload unfamiliar information using references or just casually discussing the topic
  • Use KWL charts to track knowledge of new concepts/topics
  • Utilize picture books, regardless of age, to pair images with new words
  • Take virtual field trips

Spicing Up Phonics: Tips for Parents Pt. II

Phonics instruction can be quite tedious, as we have established in part one. However, it doesn’t have to be! Parents can employ the use of different games and challenges to help children build their phonics knowledge at home. Beginning with basic sounds, then corresponding letters, vowel patterns, and so on, children are able to garner more knowledge of phonics and language without the droning, repetitive instruction that we usually associate with phonics lessons in the classroom. See more strategies and activities below!

Rhymes in the car

To help children with rhyming patterns inconspicuously, parents can challenge them to a “rhyme off” to fill the time during a long car ride.

  • Allow children to choose a word; sight words are great for beginning the rhyme off as well!
  • Going back and forth, each participant must come up with a new word that rhymes with the original word.
  • If the original word is chair, participants will continue with hair, fair, pair, etc.
  • Since you are just working with sounds, allow for any and all vowel patterns that rhyme with the original word, like dare, care, bear, etc.
  • Then later on, to extend the activity, parents can show how some of the rhyming words followed a different vowel pattern of spelling.

Guess the digraph

Simply put, a digraph is a combination of two letters (di-) that make one sound. Examples are vast, but some include: ch, sh, wh, ay, th, ph, etc.

  • Parents will simply say a word that includes a digraph, such as phone.
  • The child will then say the letters that make up that digraph and isolate the sound; “phone is ph; ph says fff—.”
  • To extend the activity, challenge your child to come up with another word that includes the same digraph, such as “phony.”
  • Want even more of a challenge? Write out a word that includes a digraph and ask your child to identify the two letters that create that one sound.
  • For instance, if parents write down “chocolate,” the child would identify ch as the digraph.
  • Parents should explain that, on their own, the letter C makes its own sound; same thing with the letter H. However, in combination, the two letters create a new sound.

The new name game

This is another phonics challenge that is great for long car rides.

  • Essentially, participants follow the letters of the alphabet coming up with real people’s names for each letter.
  • It can look like this: Alex, Brennan, Creighton, David, Ethan, Felicity, Gail, etc.
  • If you want to add even more of a challenge, parents can say that names have to alternate genders, or perhaps you have to try the entire alphabet using names that are typically considered “girl names.” Amy, Brooke, Courtney, Dana, etc.

You can also modify the game for children who have not quite mastered the alphabet by simplifying the rules. Instead of going through the alphabet, choose one letter and take turns coming up with names that start with that letter.

Phonemic Awareness Pt. III

Vowel Phonemes

The English alphabet contains the following five vowels: A, E, I, O, U. The letter Y is also considered a vowel when it represents a vowel sound, like “fly” or “lonely.” Vowels make up a small percentage of the letters in the English alphabet; however, the list of vowel sounds that these letters can produce is much longer!  Because there are so many different ways of spelling certain vowel phonemes, learning the appropriate patterns for reading and writing require much more instruction than the “sound it out” method.

For instance, take the diphthong (combination of two vowel phonemes) /aɪ/. This sound can be made using multiple different letter patterns:

  • eye
  • by
  • die
  • bright
  • mite
  • Thailand
  • kayaks

So how do we begin to teach these phonological skills when there are so many letter combinations to create these sounds? 

As discussed in part II, vowel sounds are a whole new ball game when it comes to reading instruction. For beginning readers, as previously explained, it’s all about initially hearing the difference between short and long vowels. Parents and educators can solidify foundational knowledge about how to distinguish short vowel sounds from long vowel sounds by incorporating repetition and movement. 

To introduce short vowel sounds, students will want to practice using familiar one-syllable words with corresponding actions. Parents and/or teachers will recite and model the phrase and motion. Then adults should ask children to recite/perform it back in unison:

  • “i as in itch” (scratch shoulder)
  • “eh as in elephant” (pretend your arm/wrist is the elephant’s trunk)
  • “ah as in apple” (motion as though you’re holding and biting into an apple)
  • “uh as in up” (jump or point upwards)
  • “o (aw) as in octopus” (motion with fingers as though you’re an octopus crawling on the seafloor)

In order to introduce long vowel sounds, repeat the phrase, “Long (fill in with vowel) says its name.” This way, children will begin to equate the words that they are hearing to either long or short sounds. This differentiation prepares them for the spelling patterns/rules that correspond to short and long vowel sounds, which they will learn shortly. Examples include:

  • “The word be is a long vowel sound because long E says its name.”
  • “The word tape is a long vowel sound because long A says its name.”
  • “The word oval is a long vowel sound because long O says its name.” 

After children grasp the concept of how these vowel phonemes sound in different words, they are ready to start looking at the letter/sound combinations (diphthongs) in order to correctly read the various vowel patterns. 


Another key concept regarding phonemic awareness is the digraph. A digraph is a combination of two letters that make up one sound. Common digraphs include sh, ch, th, and wh. When introducing these sounds, provide visuals or photo cards to accompany the examples of words with digraphs—the more familiar, the better. 

Here, you can return to tapping, finger stretching, etc., but instead of tapping syllables within a word, you’ll ask students to tap for the phonemes that they hear in each word. For example, cat and that are both one syllable words; however, students will notice how that has an additional letter. But instead of students tapping out the “t” and “h” sounds separately, the two are combined to form the one sound, the digraph “th.” So while 3-letter word cat is tapped c-a-t (3 phonemes, 1 syllable), 4-letter word that is also tapped using 3 phonemes: th-a-t. 

Phonemic Awareness Pt. II

Phonemic awareness, which many experts say should be mastered before first grade, is just the first layer when introducing a child to reading. While the terms sound very similar, moving from phonemic awareness to phonics instruction is actually a rather involved leap. A child who has mastered phonemic awareness is able to understand that sounds are represented by letters in the alphabet, whereas phonics is more complex. It requires the reader’s knowledge of blending those sounds together to form syllables within words.

Closed Syllables

Closed syllables are the most common form of English syllablesover 50% of all syllables in the English language are closed. But what does this mean? A closed syllable is a syllable with one voweltypically a short vowel soundfollowed by one or more consonants. Examples of one-syllable words that fall into this category include:

  • Cup
  • Cat
  • Bet
  • Dot
  • Sin
  • Log 

This is by no means an extensive list; however, the point of starting with examples of closed syllables is to familiarize children with short vowel sounds and the patterns of letters that consistently create those sounds. When children move on to look at multisyllabic words, the same rules apply for those syllables. Take the word napkin. It is comprised of two syllables, nap and kin, both of which include a single, short-vowel, followed by a consonant.  Other examples to introduce multisyllabic words with short vowel sounds include:

  • Magnet
  • Submit
  • Content
  • Epic
  • Picnic 
  • Sandwich 

Non-examples, where the syllable is open, meaning that the vowel phoneme is not “closed in” by a consonant, include:

  • Ta ble (table)
  • Ba by (baby)
  • Fro zen (frozen)
  • Pro test (protest)
  • Ho tel (hotel)

Syllable Segmentation

In order for children to identify how words are made up of different sounds (or phonemes), we must help them to explicitly hear the different components or syllables within those words. We are likely familiar with the “clapping” method, in which educators model how to “chunk” words into their separate sounds (syllables) by clapping for each syllable. For example, clapping out the syllables for people’s names would look like this:

  • Sarah = Sa-rah (2 claps)
  • Bethenny = Be-then-ny (3 claps)
  • Jake = (1 clap)
  • Felicity = Fel-i-ci-ty (4 claps)

Another option for syllable segmentation involves the use of an abacus, a tool that is typically used for counting and other math skills. Children will slide a bead to the other side for every syllable they hear in the word. Some reading programs suggest a strategy similar to clapping, in which students “tap” or “finger stretch” the syllables in a word. Either way, the process should begin as an auditory practiceno written words or word cards are necessary in this stage. You really are asking children to simply hear the phonemes before they delve into written words. 

Hear the difference: Vowel Phonemes

Short vowel phonemes are introduced organically when children learn about closed syllables. However, the long vowel phonemes are another story altogether; they follow a myriad of different rules when combined with other letters. This is partly what makes the English language so complex! Stay tuned for part III!

Phonemic Awareness Pt. I

Most adults do not remember learning how to read. We likely remember fumbling through picture books and sitting crisscross applesauce during story time while the teacher pointed word by word on a giant-sized story. We probably remember counting the pages to the next chapter in our first chapter books. We may remember all of these initial interactions with literacy, some fond, some agonizing—but few of us remember how, exactly, we learned to read. 

Besides the good ole “sound it out” adage that my parents and teachers would push, I honestly do not remember much of my own initial reading instruction. And while methodology and strategies have evolved, the struggles with reading still exist for many children. There is no magical answer when it comes to learning how to read; however, there are a couple of strategies that parents and educators can employ to ease the journey.

Hear it out

It turns out that the antiquated advice to simply “sound it out” while struggling to read a word is not too far off. However, some key components are missing that would make all the difference—and it starts with phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is a fancy way to describe one’s ability to identify, manipulate, and distinguish units of sound—phonemes—and how those units work together to make words. For instance, a child does not need to know how to spell cake to know that it is different from the word bake. Their ability to distinguish the different sounds or phonemes—“c” vs. “b”— is the first step to understanding written language. 

Start simple

Before even putting written words in front of a child to read, try activities that build phonemic awareness just by listening. They can be hugely beneficial, and also much less intimidating than trying to read text right off the bat! 

An easy way to start measuring and improving upon a child’s phonemic awareness is to list 3-4 words orally, such as spoon, step, salt, and dot. Pronounce the words clearly and deliberately several times. Then ask your child if the beginning sound is the same for each word. Ask which word has a different beginning sound. Then isolate just that sound—“d” vs. “s.Prompt your child to simply repeat the individual phoneme “d,” as opposed to “duh,” as this pronunciation could complicate things later. Model how that isolated phoneme sounds, for instance “m” sounds like “mmmm,” not “muh.”

Once they have identified the beginning phoneme (sound) that doesn’t fit the others in the list, ask your child to think of another word that starts with the “d” sound. You can also use image cards to represent the one-syllable words from your list. Have your child sort the picture cards by beginning phonemes. Remind them to orally say the word that the image depicts while they sort. Just remember that the card should contain only the picture—no word or label, as that will come later. With this method, the focus really is on letter sounds in isolation to familiarize beginning readers with letter sounds, then syllable sounds, then words.