How Do We Read?

Reading is a complex cognitive process of decoding symbols to construct meaning. In addition to talking about reading books and texts, we also refer to other types of reading such as reading music, reading the time, reading a map.  In all cases, multiple cognitive processes are involved to make meaning from symbolic visual representations.

The following components are necessary in order to learn to read fluently and with understanding, all of which will be described in greater detail throughout the module:

  • Print Awareness
  • Phonological Awareness
  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Letter-Sound Correspondence
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension

Contrary to oral language skills, these reading skills must be taught, as they are not a natural part of human development. For a description of the developmental milestones for reading, see pages 75-79 of the document Foundations for Literacy: An Evidence-Based Toolkit for the Effective Reading and Writing Teacher. Click here to access this document.

Primary students reading on a bench

What Do Students with LDs Need to Read?

“All children need instruction, but some children need substantial amounts of truly high-quality teaching to learn to read and write alongside their peers. What all children need, and some need more of, is models, explanations and demonstrations of how reading is accomplished.” [1]

To teach students with learning disabilities (LDs) to read, the strategies and approaches may be no different from those used for the rest of the class. However, students with LDs often require more support, more intensive and overt instruction, and more time to master the skills [2].

The following guiding principles from the Ministry of Education document, Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students with Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6 [3], are relevant for teaching reading to students with LDs.

  • Instruction should be varied, balanced, and delivered systematically, explicitly, and with sufficient intensity and duration.
  • Foundational skills (e.g. decoding) and conceptual skills (e.g. comprehension) should be taught concurrently.
  • Ongoing assessment is critical for improving instruction.
  • Early assessment of children at risk is important for providing instruction that prevents later learning difficulties*.

*Note that learning disabilities are neurobiological in nature and therefore are lifelong and cannot be prevented. However, the extent to which they impair learning and skill development can be mediated by effective instruction.

For more detailed information on LDs and their impact on reading, continue to the next section of this module.


[1] Allington & Cunningham, 1996, p. 45

[2] Ontario Ministry of Education, 2005

[3] Ontario Ministry of Education, 2005, p. 92