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The 5 Pillars of Reading

In attempting to answer the question, "What is reading?", you're bound to come across the 5 Pillars of Reading - the concepts that must be built up before we can be successful readers. There has been general agreement about these pillars for over 20 years, ever since they were identified by the National Reading Panel.

The skill of reading can be compared to building a house. First, you build the foundation, then the walls. The pillars can be thought of as your foundation - without them, the house of reading will not stand. In this post, I plan to give a quick summary of each pillar. Later posts will go into much more depth on each one.

1. The first pillar is Phonemic Awareness. This is the understanding that words are made up of sounds, and we can combine sounds in different ways to make different words. For example, if we trade the /s/ sound in "sat" for an /m/ sound, we get "mat."

2. The second pillar is Phonics. This is where we start linking sounds with symbols to show how we represent those sounds in writing. It's important to understand that the symbols (letters) we use are fairly arbitrary - there's no particular reason that the letter 'b' represents the sound /b/, other than our mutual agreement that it does.

3. The third pillar is Fluency. This is connected to the process of reading passages smoothly and accurately. Keep in mind that we can't read fluently until we've mastered both Phonemic Awareness and Phonics, and Fluency is not related to speed. Someone can be a completely fluent reader and still read quite slowly.

4. The fourth pillar is Vocabulary. The English language is composed of (too) many words, and we need to know a lot of them in order to read successfully. Most of us learn new vocabulary through exposure, either by hearing or reading the words multiple times.

5. The fifth pillar is Comprehension. This is the ultimate goal of reading and requires mastery of all the other pillars. Until we know how to read the words and what they mean, it will be very difficult to understand what we are reading.

In a nutshell, those are the 5 pillars of reading. If you are a successful reader, you have built all 5 at some point, whether you were aware of it or not. If you or someone you know is struggling with reading, one or more of these pillars is not structurally sound.

If you want to improve someone's reading skills, it's often helpful to work backwards: if they're struggling with comprehension, go back to vocabulary; if that skill is weak, go back to fluency; and so on.

This is a very simplified explanation, but you should now have some understanding of the complexities of reading. There is a lot happening in your brain while you're reading these words, and you're probably not consciously aware of most of it.

If you like reading journal articles, the link above will take you to a detailed explanation of the 5 pillars. Otherwise, watch for my future posts that will attempt to provide an in-depth but clear summary of each pillar.

Thank you for reading, and please leave me a comment with your thoughts, questions, and/or suggestions for future topics related to reading.

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