Defining the 6 Components of Reading

Now that we have looked at creating the conditions for learning and the principles for instruction, we turn our attention to WHAT we teach: the six components of reading.

This chapter will provide a brief description of each reading component. In subsequent chapters, we will explore each of them more thoroughly. You can think of this chapter as a quick-and-dirty guide to the six components of reading. Later chapters will examine the reading components more closely, including behaviors, sub-skills, effective and ineffective teaching strategies, sample learning activities, and related components.

These six reading components are not sequential. Students do not have to master one skill before learning another skill. For example, the first skill that students typically begin learning is oral language development. Students do not need to “master” oral language before they can move on to other skills. (In fact, oral language may be the most challenging of all the skills, but at its most simple levels, it is the first skill children begin to learn.)

Similarly, we do not teach one skill at a time. Each reading component is best taught when the instructional activities address multiple components. A single lesson may include opportunities to develop all the skills! In the next chapters, I will discuss which other components to address when focusing on a particular skill.

Now, without delay, here are the six reading components.

Oral Language Development

Understanding how language is used in a particular event, setting, context, or culture.

Language use varies according to where you are. Concepts and things have different names. Speech may have different patterns, expressions, and phrasing. Language that is appropriate for one situation may not be appropriate for another situation. Understanding these differences is the realm of oral language development. We can apply this understanding to interpreting text by studying how an author (or characters in a story) uses language. Whenever we ask students to analyze how language is used, we are addressing oral language development.

Phonemic Awareness

The ability to identify and manipulate sounds in words.

Words are made up of sounds. Learning to identify those sounds, change them, remove them, or add to them is phonemic awareness. Close your eyes and think of all the sounds in the word “remote.” How many sounds did you hear? (I hear 5 sounds.) Now take out the “re” sound. What word did you just make? That’s phonemic awareness. This skill gets progressively more complex, such as when we start talking about syllables or rhythm, which means instruction in phonemic awareness is as valuable for older students as for younger students. Remember: the focus is only on the sounds . . . not reading printed text.


The ability to translate printed symbols into speech sounds.

Another term for phonics is “decoding.” At its core, phonics is sounding out written words. This includes how to combine letters into groups to make sounds. Students generally understand more spoken words than printed words. Phonics helps them turn those written words into spoken words. If they then recognize the word, they have a better chance to understand written text. However, simply being able to sound out words is not sufficient for reading. They may be able to sound out the words correctly but still not know what they mean. Reading instruction should help students develop phonics (because phonics are necessary), but only as a part of a broader approach to reading.


The ability to read aloud accurately with appropriate pacing and expression.

Fluency combines several reading skills into one behavior: phonics, comprehension, and oral language. Some reading programs focus only on the accurate reading aloud of words—because that is the only part they can test. This is not fluency but phonics. Fluency is much more than looking at a flash card and correctly naming the word. It is much more than reading a passage aloud and saying most of the words correctly. Real fluency has two more parts that are often overlooked. Is the student reading at an appropriate pace? Does the student use vocal expressions that are appropriate for the text?


Knowing the meanings of words and the ability to learn the meanings of new words.

To understand text, you have to know what the words mean. With vocabulary instruction, we help students expand the number of words they know. Students need many more words than we can teach them, so we also teach them a process for figuring out the meanings of new words.


Developing a justifiable, personal interpretation of a text.

Comprehension is much more than knowing what the words mean in a text, or content knowledge. It also includes the ability to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate a text. These skills apply to both fiction and non-fiction texts. Students apply their background knowledge, experiences, and perspectives to the analysis process to create their own interpretations of texts, and they are able to justify or explain how they arrived at that interpretation.