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Reading development

Reading comprehension is not a skill like swimming.

Hugh Catts

Reading different genre and different subjects is not like swimming in different waters.


This article defines reading and its dimensions and focuses on the big picture of reading. It reviews how children generally develop their reading skills for literacy, discusses reading pedagogy, and reviews two prominent historical models of reading (phonics and whole language), and considers how they fuel controversies, and lists possibilities of why people criticize reading.

It also includes, within the discussion of reading, the importance of context and transfer of ideas for comprehension; and reviews reading research.


The science of reading involves studying how reading operates, develops, is taught, shapes academic and cognitive growth, affects motivation and emotion, interacts with context, and impacts context in turn. It includes genetic, biological, environmental, contextual, social, political, historical, and cultural factors that influence the acquisition and use of reading. Steve Graham

The science of reading contributes a vast interdisciplinary store of critical information about reading-related skills, processes, antecedents, and outcomes, representing linguistic, cognitive, social, cultural, neurological, and psychological dimensions. Patricia Alexander

Reading is not just phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension but also language development, motivation, dyslexia, the reading of digital texts, multilingual literacy, the literacies of Black students and other historically minoritized student groups, and on and on. Amanda Goodwin

So, overall, experts agree there are various complex and varied ways to teach reading — not one best way to teach reading.

Reading pedagogy overview

The science of reading involves studying how reading operates, develops, is taught, shapes academic and cognitive growth, affects motivation and emotion, interacts with content, and impacts context in turn. It includes genetic, biological, environmental, contextual, social, political, historical, and cultural factors that influence the acquisition and use of reading.

Steve Graham


As someone who has been conducting empirical studies of reading for 40 years,
I see the science of reading as contributing to a vast interdisciplinary store of critical information about reading-related skills, processes, antecedents, and outcomes, representing linguistic, cognitive, social, cultural, neurological, and psychological dimensions.

Patricia Alexander

Reading is complex, and therefore, it is essential to consider how it develops broadly with the interactions of its dimensions; as well as understanding each dimension.

Let's start by thinking of reading as decoding and comprehension. Decoding sound-symbol relationships to translate text to sound, accessing word meanings, making connections between words, sentences, paragraphs, and stories by relating textual meaning to prior knowledge of genre, subjects, and lived culture to make inferences about the author's message.

Even when reading becomes automatic for a skilled reader, it is important they know when to take time to stop and use a skill related to a specific reading dimensions to better understand what they are reading. To know when and how to use all dimensions, is part of what is necessary to read, develop literacy, and appreciate literature.

However, this article is about reading in general, and the specifics for these dimensions can be found at these links:

  1. Phonemic awareness
  2. Phonics
  3. Fluency
  4. Vocabulary
  5. Comprehension
  6. Context & transfer

Development of reading

As children learn to read they progress through four general stages.

  1. Emergent literacy - learn oral language, alphabet, and gain an early notion of how books and print are organized. Also are aware of the sounds of a spoken language (phonemic awareness).
  2. Decoding - letters and groups of letters represent the sounds they hear in spoken words. Phonics is the study of the letter-sound correspondences.
  3. Fluency - word recognition is always in a formative stage. However, the mental conversation or oral reading needs to be proficient enough to connect what is decoded to meaning fast enough for comprehension of the entire reading. Around second grade is when most readers begin to attain enough fluency to be an independent reader.
  4. Learning the new - When reading fluency is attained, a reader gains the capacity to work on comprehension. Learners who have to concentrate on too many words, are not able to comprehend. When word recognition is automatic, the reader responds, hopefully in a way that fits the meaning intended by the author. One danger of overemphasis on decoding is some readers become excellent word callers, but have limited ability, or inclination, to comprehend what they read. Vocabulary development, comprehension, and transfer are also skills needed to be successful when reading new literature.

Since reading is a complex process, its development need not wait for any dimensions to be fully developed before working on another. At the same time, there is no sound reason to push instruction too early, as learners who are not willing and successful, will become frustrated and too much frustration can build to reading anxiety and avoidance of reading.

Reading philosophies

While reading literacy involves all of the dimensions of reading, the reading wars tend to focus mainly on one dimension, like phonics or comprehension, and one instructional models - direct or nondirective or other syntax.

Therefore, to argue that any method, which doesn't include all the dimensions of reading, is better than another, is a faulty argument. Which is probably based on lack of understanding of the complex reading process, personal preference, bias, or misuse of research.

Thus, when a person says, reading needs to include phonics, or comprehension, or any other of its dimensions, the response is yes. All dimensions of reading need to be included.

When it comes to instruction the answer is a bit more nuanced. However, each different syntax has value in certain situations, in meeting the needs of learners, as well as thinking, top-down and bottom up when making decisions on how to teach reading in general or helping learners in difficult situations.

Some reasons why people will not acknowledge this!

  • Want to profit by selling: workbooks, phonics basal series, trade books, ...
  • Want children to be taught like they were. If it is good enough for ... it is good for ...
  • Don't want to try something new or unfamiliar.
  • Want to use it as an argument against something else: a teacher, principal, curriculum. public school,
  • My child is doing fine, don't want to change to give an advantage to another person's child.
  • Believe children need discipline and will not learn by themselves or make good decisions.
  • Want to undermine public education in America.
  • Want to support privatization of education.
  • Want to weaken public education.

Let's review two philosophies people consider for teaching and learning reading.

Top-down model

If a person reads or hears the following sentence -

She combed her ...

And fills in the rest of the sentence before seeing or hearing hair or long auburn hair, then that is Top-down.

This philosophy is based on the idea that meaning is, content oriented or concept-driven. That the brain processes the text and fills in the sentence or tells the eye what to see or look for, before sounding out the letters.

The process of understanding, begins within the mind, as the person attempts to understand a communication: textual words, visual images, spoken words or other sounds, or physical actions.

It is meaning driven, based on assumptions and inferences (evidence and reasoning) initiated by the individual. Who identifies letters, words, lines, actions, and sounds based on their personal understanding brought to the transaction.

Transactions driven by meaning making. Meaning, which is brought to a piece of literature or work of art, not derived from the print, sounds, lines, or actions of the piece. Understanding that moves from the the ideas a person has to decode the parts used in the piece to communicate ideas.

She turned and ran from the growling dog looking for a way to escape when she saw a low hanging _______ ...

Fire escape, limb, … .

It is the contextual background of the reader that will attempt to insert meaning from what is relevant to them.

In top-down sense making, comprehension, is integral with decoding.

Bottom-up model

If a person reads or hears the following sentence.

She combed her long auburn hair.

And there is no thinking ahead only concentration on each word, as they read letters to recognize each word, and associate the word to meaning, or each word pops into their mind assisted by the letters on the page, or sounds in their ear, that is Bottom-up.

The Bottom up model suggests a process of understanding begins with the feeding of bits of information into the mind, like a conveyor belt with the person interpreting the bits: text, words, phrases, visual images, spoken words, other sounds, or physical actions.

There is no need to make predictions about the sounds of the letters or words, as information is rapidly and efficiently feed to the brain for it to assemble the information into words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. In bottom-up it does not need to tell the eyes or ears what information is needed. When decoding words into sounds, the reader does not use them for comprehension. Comprehension is considered outside the decoding process.

In bottom-up the focus is on decoding, not on sense making, or comprehension, as it is in a top-down model. However, that doesn't mean there are not times when a structured instructional method would be helpful for students to learn in all the dimensions.

Which model?

In reality, the debate between the two models, continues because, both have legitimate use.

One ultimate goal of reading is to develop skill in decoding so that information can be feed into the mind quickly and efficiently, as the conveyor belt analogy suggests, in the bottom up model.

However, if the brain is capable of decoding the information and has sufficient attention in reserve, and information to transfer to comprehend, then it will, and reflect on that comprehension. This reflects a top down model that explains how the brain can interpret and analyze the information. Checking it for inconsistencies, making predictions, evaluating alternative possibilities, and standing by to shut down, review, continue, or make any number of decisions a literate person might make.

Role of the context and transfer in reading

Context is essential for understanding in all dimensions of reading:

  1. Phonemic awareness
  2. Phonics
  3. Fluency
  4. Vocabulary
  5. Comprehension

Reading comprehension depends on the context in which the text is created, how it is created, and how all its elements fit together. Its words, wording, genre, story elements, and all other information encoded in the piece. The reader needs to uses their decoding skills to select from their current knowledge, about reading and the information the author encoded in the context of their text, to successfully comprehend the piece.

Let's look at an example of using context to comprehend word meaning (vocabulary).

In the sentence...

The team scored two runs in the first inning.

The context comes into play after the word runs has been decoded or located.

There was no need to consciously sort through all thirty of the different meanings for the word run, only one was referenced in your brain, to derive meaning for this sentence.

Context, suppressed all other meanings of run, and accepted only what made sense. The idea of bowel problems didn't enter your conscious thought at all. Well, not until now anyway ... Sorry!

For the reader to use context, they need to have the necessary and sufficient experiences in memory; and be able to select and use (transfer) their understandings, in the context of the piece of literature they are reading, to comprehend it.

Yet, the transfer of appropriate known knowledge and skill to apply it to comprehend a piece of literature, goes well beyond using context to understand vocabulary.

To be a life long learner, it is essential not only to be able to transfer, but to have the desire and ability to apply, expand, and seek new learnings for deeper and more comprehensive understanding to attain a mastery of a topic or subject. A mastery that includes the inquiry skills in different areas to discover and create knowledge in different subjects or disciplines.

Outstanding teachers consider teaching for transfer when they they plan (discover, apply, & generalize). Suggestions to achieve this include:

Instructional suggestions for transfer and context

We help readers transfer appropriate information in the different contexts authors create by:

  1. Anticipating what information is necessary and sufficient to comprehend a piece of writing (planning).
  2. Knowing (assessing) the background information learners have.
  3. Implementing activities (instruction) that supports the reader so they can comprehend the intended text by connecting their present knowledge to the text to make it familiar for them and provide any support they need to comprehend the unfamiliar.

Many of the procedures, methods, strategies, and activities used for planning, assessing, and teaching related to comprehension, transfer, and context are listed below.

Transfer and context suggestions

Reading research

Remember good and effective teaching is not just about what science and research says usually works best, it is about finding what works best for the individual child or the group of children you are working with now.

  • Phonics related research
  • When primary grade children from low-income families could select 10 or more books to read during the summer, the reading achievement gap was largely eliminated over the three years of the study. Other studies replicated these findings. Source Kappan. Free books to close the reading achievement gap. Richard L. Allington.
  • In 2020 reading test scores on the NAEP & PISA were trending down (Barshay, 2021) particularly weaker reader scores with strong reader scores trending better. (Craw, 2020)
  • Comprehension depends on recognizing the vast majority of the words in texts automatically and meaningfully. (Amendum et. al. 2018)
  • Analysis of 3rd grade texts over the 20th century show a slight increase in complexity, not a decline. (Gamson et. al. 2013)
  • For people who argue poor readers need basic reading, the research suggests the opposite. Poor readers are more likely to be taught the basics (letter-sound correspondence) and less likely to be have opportunities with complex ideas found in texts. Bacon et. al, 2016; Eppley et. al. 2019; Haberman, 1991; Northrop & Kelley, 2019) Many low performing schools have tried and failed to increase achievement with explicit phonics instruction. G.W. Bush admin invested $6 billion in such program from 2000-2008.
  • Reading First in 5,880 schools (Gamse et. al. 2008) mandated systematic and explicit instruction in phonics and other foundational skills and closely monitored to ensure compliance. Reading comprehension scores declined. (Gamse et. al. 2008)
  • A shift from bilingual / bicultural whole language based model to an English only phonics and NCLB and Reading First model coincided with a dramatic decline in reading test scores. (McCarty, 2009)
  • Reading for understanding is both a cause and consequence of reading comprehension. (Pearson et. al. 2020) Consequence in that readers extend their social and natural world knowledge through the texts they read.
  • Evidence strongly suggests reading on paper, rather than screen, promotes better comprehension. (Clinton, 2019; Delgato et. al. 2018; Jalamish & Elbaz, 2020)
  • Reading engagement is better on paper than with digital tables. (Martin-Beltran et. al 2017)
  • For most students audio books have few benefits over print. (Singh & Alexander, 2022) However, there are some benefits if combined alongside printed version. Also if accompanied with printed graphic organizers, story maps, concept webs, questions with cognitive prompts, or periodic group processing.
  • Diversity matters, but more so how characters and people are represented in the texts. Students prefer texts where they can identify with characters. (Cartledge et. al. 2016) They feel affirmed if their perspectives are considered in texts. (Veliahovic, 2021) and the sometimes change their perceptions and beliefs when reading about cultures different than theirs. (Ginsberg & Glenn, 2020)
  • When teachers provide texts that relate to their learners, they are connecting information that is relevant to what the learner knows and their cultural capital, which is motivational because it makes what they are learning relevant. (Moll 2019)
  • Studies show academic achievement is associate with engagement in reading and classroom-related activities. (Finn 1993)
  • Students with high self-efficacy are more likely to engage in school related reading than those with low self-efficacy. (Alvermann 2003)
  • High school teachers contribute to adolescent self-confidence when they care about them as individuals and encourage them to learn (Dillon, 1989, Dillon & Moje, 1998)
  • The caring teacher who believes that students can succeed can have a positive Pygmalion Effect - whereby believing in potential creates potential- in adolescents.
    Relevant curricular topics motivated students to learn about the characteristics of persuasive writing (Greenleag, Jimenez, & Roller, 2002)
  • Providing students choice among assignments and texts make students less resistant to completing their work (Wigfield, 2004)
  • Use of student ideas, biographies, and imaginations across genres and media help struggling youth. 
  • Reading instruction must be continuous with emphasis on developing strategic knowledge for dealing with unknown words and comprehension. 
  • To work on developing comprehension students must understand where, when, and how to apply varied comprehension strategies. 
  • Recent studies suggest teenagers can recognize the sources of their difficulties and, from this recognition, can learn to strategize and progress by reading more difficult texts which increases teens’ self-efficacy in their ability to read and comprehend.
  • Skill content area teachers are those adept in understanding their students’ individual motivations and needs while creating conditions through discussion and strategy, for literacy success in multiple contexts. This is vastly different than promoting the literacy of children through phonemic awareness and fluency identified in NCLB.
  • Students need not learn to read or write richly if their task is to learn facts. 
    Rich writing requires a need to solve problems posed by complicated content and contexts.
  • NCLB says nothing about students who fail because they chose not to play the game of academics or about school systems that favor one print based literacy over others.
  • Students must be able to comprehend more complex texts; determine the meaning of obscure, unfamiliar, and technical vocabulary; use higher-order thinking skills to analyze a wide variety of literacy and expository texts and media; and develop skills for expressing their ideas by writing informative, persuasive, and creative texts. 

Reading & Writing' assessments of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)

Achievement-level definitions used to derive the results.

  1. Below Basic—Achievement that is less than partial mastery.
  2. Basic—Partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.
  3. Proficient—Solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students
  4. reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.
  5. Advanced—Superior performance.

The 2002 NAEP results summary

  1. Approximately 68 percent of Grade 8 students and 64 percent of Grade 12 students are reading below the proficient level. 
  2. Approximately 69 percent of Grade 8 students and 77 percent of Grade 12 students are writing below the proficient level. 
  3. Less than 6% of students at Grade 8 and 12 performed at the advanced level in reading. 
  4. Approximately 2% of students in Grade 8 and 12 performed at the advanced level in writing.