Decoding and comprehension: the two components of learning how to read

academics College reading comprehension
By Shira

Reading is a fundamental mode of communication and therefore a prerequisite of active participation in today’s world. There are two components to reading: decoding and comprehension. Decoding refers to understanding the relationship between letters and sounds, otherwise known as phonics; comprehension refers to a student’s ability to make sense of what they are reading. 

Unfortunately, learning to read is not always instinctual and can be very challenging for some students, particularly those diagnosed with dyslexia. For these students, “breaking the code” (e.g. understanding the relationship between letters and sounds) may feel like an impossible endeavor. If they are not offered effective, research-backed instruction, struggling readers learn to avoid reading and develop an antipathy to it. Thankfully, there are proven instructional techniques that improve reading skills over time. With explicit, methodical, and structured instruction that focuses on breaking down and articulating the rules of the English language, even struggling readers can master the skill of decoding.

Other students may struggle more with reading comprehension and have little-to-no difficulty with decoding, though it is entirely possible that a student who has a hard time decoding will also struggle with comprehension. And just as there are techniques to teach decoding, there are strategies to improve overall comprehension. Hopefully, as mastery increases in both skills, students will also gain an appreciation and love of reading; at the very least, they will be able to successfully read for meaning and communication, enabling them to enjoy productive and rewarding roles in society. 

In addition to explicit instruction, whether in decoding, comprehension, or both, struggling readers should always be exposed to high-quality books, magazines, newspapers, and other content that sparks their interest. It is essential to offer students fiction, as well as non-fiction. Graphic novels are often superb ways to get non-readers interested in books. 

Learning to read is not necessarily easy, but it is essential. With hard work and the right kind of instruction, reading difficulties can be overcome. Every student will approach reading based on their unique brain wiring, so every student’s pathway to reading mastery will be unique, but no matter what, every student can learn to read.

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