How does reading work?

Reading is a complex, multipart process.

Phonemic Awareness

Spoken words are made up of smaller pieces of sound—called phonemes (pronounced FOH-neemz).

Figure 1: Phonemes and Speech: illustration of child pronouncing bag. The child has an image of a bag in its head next to the phonemes of bag.

The English language has about 40 phonemes. When someone says a word, the sound comes out as one continuous stream (Figure 1). The brain must be able to separate the sound pieces. For example, the word "bag" has three phonemes—/b/, /æ/, and /g/.

Understanding that words are made up of individual sounds is a key part of learning to read. This understanding is called phonemic awareness.

Phonemes make up spoken words, and words only make sense when these phonemes are combined in a particular order. Phonemic awareness can be taught and learned using activities such as rhyming games.

Another way to teach and learn this awareness is to work with single phonemes in spoken words, such as identifying the first sound in cat as /k/. Part of this learning is also realizing that a change to a single sound or phoneme can change the meaning of the word. For example, changing the /g/ in bag to a /t/ gives us the word bat, which has a different meaning from bag.

The Alphabetic Principle and Phonics

Figure 2: The Alphabetic Principle: illustration of child reading the word of bag. In the child's head are the sounds of bag and a drawing of a bag.

Another part of learning to read (in alphabetic languages such as English) is understanding that letters of the alphabet, either by themselves or with other letters, stand for sounds or phonemes. This knowledge is called the alphabetic principle (Figure 2).

When students learn how to apply their knowledge of the sounds in words (phonemic awareness), together with their skills at recognizing letters, and can use the letter-sound pairings to sound out printed words, it is called phonics.

To better understand phonics, think about how you read a made-up word like "blit" or "fratchet." Even though you don't know the made-up word or what it means, you can read it by figuring out what sounds the letters make, and then you can sound it out and pronounce it.

Phonemic awareness and phonics skills help readers sound out new words.


Knowing that a word has meaning is an important part of learning to read. The words we know are called our vocabulary.

Learning vocabulary starts very early in life, such as when toddlers look at what you are talking about, or say their first words to get what they need or want. As toddlers grow, they learn more and more words. By the time they start to sound out words as part of learning to read, most children can recognize most of the words they are sounding out, recognizing that they have heard those words before and what the words mean. This is why having a good vocabulary is so important to reading.


As a reader continues to develop phonics skills, a specific reading skill called fluency (pronounced FLOO-en-see) also improves. Fluency goes beyond just pronouncing or knowing words—it actually includes many parts, such as:

  • Being able to read quickly
  • Recognizing words and their meanings
  • Saying words and sentences with feeling, and stressing the right word or phrase so that a sentence sounds natural and conveys the correct meaning


Understanding the information that words and sentences communicate is another important part of reading. This is called comprehension (pronounced kom-pri-HEN-shuhn). Comprehension is actually the main goal of learning to read. There are many ways to improve comprehension:

  • Building vocabulary can help a reader recognize more words and better understand the overall meaning of the text.
  • Understanding the structure of text‐or how it is organized—helps readers know what to expect and where so that they can better comprehend what they are reading. Teachers show students different ways to understand the structure of the text in order to improve the students' comprehension.
  • Teachers can give students strategies or guidelines for understanding different types of texts, such as a newspaper, a fiction book, a textbook, or a menu.
  • Such strategies teach students to ask and answer questions about what they are reading, summarize paragraphs and stories they read, and draw conclusions about the information.

Teaching students to think and write about what they are reading is an important way for them to use their skills to understand science, history, social studies, math, and many other subjects they will study throughout their education.

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