Reading Theory

How do people learn to read?

There are three sources of information available to readers.

1. Orthographic: (the letters on the page)
Readers can make predictions based on orthography when they have knowledge of possible letter combinations in English.

i.e. c cannot follow b at the beginning of a word; word initial b can only be followed by a, e, i, o, u, y, 1, and r; once the second letter has been identified the possibilities narrow even further.
2. Syntactic: (word order)
Readers can make predictions based on syntax when they understand the patterns of English.

A marlup was poving his kump. Parmily a narg horped some whev in his kump. “Why did vump horp whev in my frinkle kump?” the marlup jufd the narg. "Er'm muvvily trungy,” the narg grupped. "Er heshed vump horpled whev in your kump. Do vump pove your kump frinkle?”

A reader, who understands English syntax, can answer the question What did the narg horp in the marlup's kump? without understanding the meaning of many of these words. In more familiar texts a reader can predict that an article (the or a) will be followed by a noun, or an adjective (or less commonly, an adverb).
3. Semantic: (meaning)
Readers can make predictions based on semantic content when they understand that different texts have different purposes, styles and content.

i.e. when reading a gardening magazine, a reader can expect to find words such as plant, soil, and cultivate, but not plane, boil, and calibrate; the reader can make predictions about content and does not have to read every letter to distinguish plant from plane.

Phonics-based approaches:

These approaches reflect the "bottom up" theory of reading that posits reading is learned best when readers can build upon a strong foundation of phonetic information. Language is broken down into components: letters (consonants, vowels), digraphs, blends, syllables, words, sentences, paragraphs, etc. The learner must master the phonetic components before they begin reading text.

This theory is criticized because learners can focus so exclusively on sounding out (decoding) individual words that the text loses meaning for them: If a reader is not receiving the message an author is trying to convey, are they actually reading?

Whole Language approach:

The Whole Language approach reflects the "top down" theory of reading that posits reading is learned best when the main goal is to derive meaning. Learners are given authentic material and encouraged to bring their experience to the text in order to predict content and meaning; they then read to confirm or contradict those predictions.

Interactive Theories:

Currently, the literature supports interactive, holistic, or cognitive theories that combine the Whole Language approach with the development of sequential skills. The focus remains on deriving meaning and prediction and phonics are viewed as two of the strategies that readers use to derive meaning from text. Learners are encouraged to interact with print in a meaningful way, using "whole" texts, not just isolated letters and words, so they can explore the various dimensions of literacy.
The Habits of Successful Readers
  1. They get their minds ready and think while they read
  2. They connect what they already know with what they are trying to learn
  3. They are curious and ask questions while they read
  4. They predict what will happen next
  5. They draw inferences (read between the lines)
  6. They act as word detectives
  7. They monitor their understanding

from The Seven Habits of Successful Readers 
by Heide Sprick Wrigley (PDF)

Also available here:

(ESL READING ACADEMY - June 17-18, 2008 -

Overview of Theories of reading


Teaching Reading to Adults - Word Recognition Strategies
Pat Campbell, Grass Roots Press -
31:23 minutes
  Print-based readers
o   focus on individual words
o   strong attention to detail
o   do not use context to predict
o   sometimes they do not “see the forest for the trees”

Strategies for print-based readers
(to develop prediction and comprehension skills)
o   Think Blank Strategy
o   Cloze Procedure

·      Meaning-based readers
o   focus on the context
o   strong attention to meaning
o   do not use orthographic information to read new words
o   see the forest, pay little attention to the trees

Strategies for meaning-based readers
(to develop phonics and word attack skills)
o   Word Families
o   Word Sorts

·      Non-integrative readers
o   struggle with new material because they have no reliable strategies to start to either decode words or make predictions about meaning

Strategies for non-integrative readers
(to develop an understanding of reading and use print-based and meaning-based strategies in an integrated way)
o   Language Experience Approach
o   Sight Words
o   Phonics
o   Modified Cloze

How do you decide which strategies to focus upon with different learners?
How would you translate this approach to a classroom setting?
How/why is Herman most similar to many beginner ESL Literacy learners?
How would you translate this approach to working with ESL Literacy learners?

(Don’t worry if you cannot answer all of these questions. Some of this will become clearer as you watch the second video.