There are different areas of the brain related to the process of reading and evidence from fMRI research conducted during reading tasks demonstrates this. Most reading interventions focus on developing the skills necessary for processing words phonetically or “sounding them out” accurately. This focus is a result of a great deal of research demonstrating a strong correlation between reading ability and the knowledge that words can be broken down into smaller component sounds (phonemic awareness). While phonemic awareness provides an important foundation for reading fluency, learning to process words phonetically is not the end of the road.
Once a child can accurately sound words out, it is important for the child to then be able to store the words in memory for later retrieval. If the child does not have the memory capacity for this function (orthographic memory), he or she will continually be sounding out the same words, regardless of the number of times those have been previously seen.
Finally, if a child does not have a strong memory for language and cannot connect language to the sensory system in order to generate the mental images and physical sensations associated with text (language sensation), he or she cannot use features of the context to aid in identifying unknown words or comprehend the text at an appropriate level which is, after all, the purpose of reading. Based upon combinations of strength and weakness in these key areas, there are clearly multiple types of readers.
Fluent readers are those for whom the process of reading is fluid and easy. These readers developed phonemic awareness at an early age, allowing them to sound out words. These readers also have the orthographic memory required to store words for later retrieval when found in print. Therefore, after accurately sounding out a word once or twice, these readers can recognize the word by sight on future occasions. These readers will continue to use their strong abilities to accurately sound out words when unfamiliar words are found in print. Fluent readers also have the ability to use the features of language and their abilities to connect language to sensory experience to aid them in identifying unknown words. They can use their oral language vocabularies and knowledge of language structure to accurately predict which words will be coming and they can check their predictions by using letter sounds along with the visual appearance of the word. Finally, the ability to connect the text to sensory experience allows fluent readers to comprehend what they read. Clearly, these readers possess all of the underlying abilities necessary to process written language fluently and effectively.
Phonetic readers are those readers who possess the underlying phonemic awareness necessary to sound out a word, but lack the orthographic memory to build the sight-word base necessary for fluent reading. These readers also lack the ability to use contextual cues and language sensation to assist in the process of reading. Phonetic readers plod through text sounding out the same words over and over again, despite having seen them multiple times before. These readers also work intently with the words themselves, as if it is the letters and their corresponding sounds that are the keys to reading rather than the meaning of the sentence or paragraph as a whole. Phonetic readers make errors that don’t make sense given the context, but do not seem to recognize having done so.
Orthographic readers read words primarily by sight and can recognize a word in print once they have been told what the word is. However, these readers lack the ability to accurately sound out unknown words. For orthographic readers, who also lack the ability to determine unknown words by using the features of the surrounding language, reading comes to a halt when an unknown word arises, which may be often. These readers need continuous help identifying new words and their own attempts to identify words will involve frequent guesses which are based on some of the visual features of the word but make little sense in the context.
Semantic readers are those for whom reading is all about meaning. In the early stages, these readers may tell a great story based upon the picture or a few recognized words; however, the story “read” will have little resemblance to the actual words in print. Semantic readers are excellent guessers and can identify words, not by sight or a sound-out process, but through determining which words make sense given the context of the story.
Non-Readers are those potential readers who experience difficulty with all of the cognitive skills necessary for fluent reading. Unlike beginning readers, who approach text from a meaning, sound, or visual standpoint, non-readers do not know how to begin the reading process. They lack all of the prerequisite skills of phonemic awareness, orthographic memory, and language sensation. They may know that they are supposed to “sound out” or “guess” at words depending on the approach used in their homes and classrooms, but have little idea how to go about either approach. For these readers, reading can become painful and embarrassing and an eagerness to learn can quickly become frustration, which can become avoidance in just a few short years. All types of struggling readers will benefit from early assessment and intervention, but these non-readers need it most if they are to become successful readers before they give up.
It is rare to find readers who rely purely on one type of processing. Most struggling readers are combination readers, who integrate two or possibly all three types of processing, but show a definite pattern based upon their individual strengths and weaknesses.
Clearly, given these many types of readers, reading instruction needs to be tailored to the specific learning needs of the struggling reader. While one child may need intervention designed to stimulate and build orthographic memory, another child may need instruction in phonemic awareness. Yet another child may not comprehend text and will need intervention designed to stimulate language sensation. Finally, there are children who need intervention geared toward developing a combination of all three skills.
At Lighthouse Learning Solutions, we evaluate a student’s skills in all of the above areas that contribute to reading fluency. Thus, our programming is tailored to the precise needs of our students. We know that there is no “one size fits all” approach to reading instruction, and we posses the knowledge and the skill to match our students with appropriate intervention. Click the link below to contact us and learn more!
An earlier version of this was published in 2012.