What are the different skills that we require for reading? Clearly, the major one is to translate spelling to sound, the phonological coding skill. Given a meaningless word, why does it take longer to read than a real word? Is it because searching for and not finding the word’s meaning takes more time? This is certainly a veiy likely explanation and we can argue that the ultimate purpose of reading is not simply pronouncing what is written, but to understand its meaning.
Some words can be read faster when placed in a meaningful context such as in the sentence John hit Jack on the nose and Jack was really hurt! A child may read the word hurt faster in this sentence than as a single isolated word in a reading test. However, if the child cannot do phonological coding, that is, has not learnt to associate the letters h-u-r-t with sounds and put these together to sound out the word, he/she will probably read the word as angry. Thus, a meaningful context can help phonological coding of a word but children cannot be taught to read a new or strange word (such as banyan, magnolia) simply by guessing its meaning in a sentence.
So, what we say about the relation between phonological coding and comprehension is simply this: words that have meaning are easier to read and we can read them faster; reading also becomes more interesting if children understand fully what they are given to read. Ask them to read something that they do not understand and they are easily turned off, complaining that it is difficult to read even though they can “sound out” every word perfectly well. We must make sure that children are given words to read in a passage that they can understand. In the article on comprehension, we discuss how meaning is derived from what is read or what is spoken.
Difficulties in reading can be caused by many conditions outside reading ability, such as poor motivation or not being exposed to a literate environment at home and in the community. As far as the reading process is concerned, we can conclude the following:
1. The reading problems of some children can be caused by difficulties in comprehension.
2. A slow rate of reading is a sign of reading difficulty, especially when children can code phonologically but have a slow read¬ing speed. In phonetically regular languages such as German, Spanish, and Portuguese, or the classical languages like Latin and Sanskrit, any new word can be read but the speed of reading is unusually slow among dyslexics.
3. A child’s word-decoding and comprehension skills are dis¬tinct abilities and should be tested separately.
There is, undoubtedly, a need for phonological coding in order to learn to read. The learning of rhymes and alliterations that occurs spontaneously during childhood prepares the child for reading and spelling. However, what seems to be a good predictor of reading is phonemic awareness, that is, the child’s ability to break words down into phonemes, to manipulate beginning and end sounds, and to be able to say the sounds when some phonemes are eliminated.
Short-term memory plays an important part in remembering the sequence of sounds that make up words. At this point it is useful to reiterate the distinction between reading words by themselves and comprehension. The two are quite distinct and engage different psychological processes. While comprehension requires world knowledge, decoding words and identifying them does not require the same type of knowledge or experience that informs the child with regard to societal ideas and events.