Successful readers manage a variety of skills simultaneously, like a conductor directs an orchestra. A student who reads smoothly and with confidence may be unable to summarize the plot. A student who labors over each word may ask insightful questions. While individual motivation, background experiences, vocabularies and home support all affect reading success, explicit teaching of specific skills can close the gap between high achieving readers and those who struggle, and help every student improve.
Accuracy measures a student's ability to correctly decode alphabet letters into words and sentences. A number of subskills are used when reading accurately. Very early readers must learn directionality of text (to read a book from left to right, top to bottom) and one-to-one correspondence (that each group of letters creates a single spoken word). Later, students learn to "sound words out" using letter-sound relationships, to guess unfamiliar words using pictures or context, to make their guesses grammatically appropriate, and to employ problem-solving strategies like reading ahead and returning to the unfamiliar word. Students should be able to describe the strategies they use.
Comprehension refers to a student's understanding of a text. One essential subskill is determining importance. As a child reads, can they identify the most important detail in a story or article? Can they find details that are less important, but that add interest? This skill will eventually help students learn to write effectively, creating structured paragraphs with a main idea and supporting details. Another important subskill is using text features: recognizing how subtitles help organize non-fiction, or how plot elements typically combine to form a fictional story. Other subskills include visualizing (making mental pictures about the text), making connections (linking the text to their own experiences, other texts or real-world stories), making inferences or "reading between the lines," asking questions, forming opinions, making predictions and retelling or summarizing.
Fluency measures how proficiently the student reads aloud. Subskills are phrasing (grouping words into meaningful chunks with appropriate pauses), pace and expression. Readers who have difficulty with phrasing sound "choppy." Readers who have difficulty with pace read too quickly or slowly for an audience to enjoy. Readers without expression tend to sound flat or disinterested.
Successful readers learn to self-monitor their accuracy, fluency and comprehension. As they read, they ask themselves: did that word sound right? Did it make sense in context? Does that look like the word I guessed? Do I need to correct myself? Does this new information fit with my background knowledge? Should I ask for help? Although each subskill can be explicitly taught in isolation, readers learn to juggle a variety of strategies at once. Students will also use self-assessment to choose appropriate books for independent reading.
Hollis Margaret has been writing and editing for print and Internet since 2000. Her work has been published on eHow and Answerbag. She has a Bachelor of Education from Mount Saint Vincent University, with a specialty in elementary education.