readilearn: What do we do when we read?

  • Published on June 8, 2018

what do we do when we read - a boy reading

Have you ever considered what we do when we read?

For many of us, reading has become such a natural and intuitive process that we rarely stop to marvel at the way we are able to make meaning from print or to question how one learns to read.

Although we know that we once weren’t readers, few can remember how we actually made the transition from being a non-reader to being able to read and have been doing it for so long now that it seems we always could.

Some adult readers have recollections of various instructional methods that were used in school and attempt to engage their own learner readers in similar tasks.

The recognition that some of the instructional methods did, and still do, equip readers with some tools for reading, does not imply that the use of these methods was the catalyst for learning to read. While they may have contributed to the development of reading, there are other influencing factors.

Many children learn to read despite the instructional methods, and many others don’t read using them and, in fact, remain non-readers because of them.

What is reading?

Reading is more than simply translating letters and words to sound. Reading involves thinking. It is a process of getting meaning from print. It requires the reader to understand ideas contained in, between and behind the words.

It is possible to “read” scientific articles and legal documents without making any sense of the content. But that would hardly be considered “real” reading.

Sometimes individual words may be familiar but, used an unfamiliar context, their meaning may be obscure, as shown in this example from Contextual and Data Refinement for the Refinement Calculus for Logic Programs, a thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy by Robert Colvin.

common words with uncommon meanings in refinement calculus

Other times, the intensity of unfamiliar scientific or technical terms may prohibit comprehension, as in this example.

paragraph with technical language

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll is another example. Readers may translate the words to speech while having no idea of their meaning.

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

But reading is more than just the sum of individual words. To fully understand a text, we must also understand the author’s intention and meanings implied but not explicitly stated.

Children must learn to “read between the lines” and interpret the text by making connections with what they already know, understanding links between different parts of the text, and being aware of techniques authors use to convey meaning.

While encouraging a love of reading through exposure to stories and books is essential, some of the best preparation for reading doesn’t come from books. It comes from extending a child’s general knowledge through a wide range of experiences enhanced by discussion and research. The more knowledgeable a reader is about a topic, sometimes referred to as prior or background knowledge, the easier a text about that topic is to read.

Whenever we read, we use our knowledge and expectations of

  • the topic — what we already know and expect to find out
  • the genre — the ways different texts are structured
  • language structures (grammar, the way language flows)
  • letter-sound relationships

to cue us into what is written on the page.

If reading is such a complex process, how does a young child learn to read, and how can we help children develop a reading strategy that integrates the cuing systems used by all effective readers?

What do we do when we read?

The importance of letter-sound knowledge and the ability to recognise words by sight is well-documented and accepted. However, the importance of engaging a reader’s prior knowledge of both topic and language is not always given equal airplay.

The purpose of the following exercise is to help you understand the processes that readers use when engaging with print.

Treat the exercise as a reading task and avoid attempting to solve it as a code, symbol by symbol.  Doing so would defeat the purpose of the exercise and the opportunity for learning would be lost. Come to the exercise as would a child approaching print for the first time, trying to make sense of it.

I’ve left some clues for you by keeping word spacing and punctuation. Remember, beginning readers would have no knowledge of these conventions so, armed with this knowledge, you’re already ahead.

Can you read this?

Wingdings: Goldilocks

No? What if I told you it was someone’s name?

No. (Remember – no trying to work out the code.)

What about if I add this to it?

Wingdings title: Goldilocks and the Three Bears

and tell you it’s the title of a story? It’s still not much help, is it?

But if I show you the text with an illustration, I’m sure you’ll read it with no trouble:

Cover of Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Now that you’ve seen the illustration, your prior knowledge is activated. I’ve told you it’s a story and the illustration tells you what story it is. You read the title (and the name) easily: Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Well done. You used the picture with what you already knew about stories and words to work it out.

Did you find that you wanted to compare the sequence of symbols with the expected sequence of letters in the words to confirm your prediction? Well done, that is another strategy that young readers use to compare and confirm words on different pages.

When we read the story, you will use your memory for this particular story combined with your knowledge of story language, words and grammar to unlock the text. Notice that, while the symbols will have some importance, your prior knowledge will take precedence. You may find yourself checking some of the symbols to confirm your predictions are correct (as beginning readers often do).

Like you, most beginner readers would be able to retell at least some of the story details. Inviting them to do so prior to reading assists the reading process by establishing expectations of what the text will offer.

When we turn to the first page and I ask you to think about how stories begin, I’m certain you’ll read the text quite easily and confidently.

Once upon a time there were three bears

How did you go? Did knowing that many stories begin: “Once upon a time . . . “ help you  to work out the sentence? Well done. In doing so, you have demonstrated how much you already know about reading:

  • print can be turned into speech
  • a message is recorded
  • the picture is a rough guide to the message
  • some language units are more likely to occur
  • there is a particular message, of particular words, in a particular order
  • memory, or what the ear remembers, helps
  • we read print in a particular direction

Remember, this knowledge is also required by young children as they begin to learn to read. Never underestimate the complexity of the task we are asking of them or take for granted how easily many seem to master it. They had to do a lot of learning to get to this point.

(Just in case you want confirmation, it does say, “Once upon a time there were three bears”.)

You won’t have any trouble with the next three pages

father bear

mother bear

baby bear

You may hesitate at the next page, but if I ask you where the three bears lived, you will probably read it with little difficulty.

the three bears lived in a house in the woods

Sometimes people are tempted to cover the illustrations when children are reading, thinking it’s not ‘real’ reading unless they are reading just the text without pictorial information. I hope this exercise has demonstrated to you the importance of engaging prior knowledge and using illustrations to assist beginner readers.

Note: If you would like to continue reading this version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears or to use it when talking with other teachers or parents about the reading process, it is now available to subscribers in Classroom Management – For Parents — How we read – an exercise for teachers and parents. A printable version can be accessed from within the resource.

a exercise demonstrating the reading process to teachers and parents showing the importance of prior knowledge

Engaging prior knowledge

The importance of activating children’s prior knowledge before any reading session is undeniable. You can assist them tune into what they will be reading by discussing:

  • what they already know of the topic and text type
  • the cover illustrations, searching for clues to what might happen in the story, or what information might be contained in the text
  • what the book might be about — what they think might happen or what they expect to find out
  • topic words and words that may be unfamiliar to the children
  • illustrations on each page of the book so children have an idea of what it’s about.

In future posts, I will share teaching strategies that ensure children learn an effective reading strategy that employs all cuing systems: meaning (semantics), grammar (syntax) and grapho-phonics (letter-sound relationship) to help them unlock the meaning in a text.

readilearn: teaching resources for the first three years of school
Resources beyond worksheets – lessons for teachers made by teachers.
Let readilearn lighten your workload.


Subscribe now for access to all readilearn resources or Register to begin using free resources.

I appreciate your feedback and comments. Please share your thoughts below.

Follow Blog By Email

Enter your email address to receive notifications of new readilearn posts by email and stay up to date with new resources.


    Norah, thank you for sharing this. I agree that magic and miracles does, in a way, define learning to read. I always enjoy reading your posts that demonstrate your understanding of how children learn to read. Even though I do not have the training to teach a beginning reader, you remind me of what I remember as a child and what I have observed in children with whom I have read. Sharing these ideas and strategies is so important and there are so many ways to support the child to grow into a reader.

    Thank you for reading and for your kind words, Sandy. Teaching children to read and write is one of my great loves. It is such a privilege to share their learning journey with them. There is nothing else quite like it. Once they know how to go about it, they just explode with enthusiasm for it.

    Fascinating read, Norah. I can distinctly remember teaching both my boys how to read. What a different road it was with both of them. As for me, I learned to read at age 4 and did a lot of it on my own. I just loved to read.

    Hi Robbie, Thanks for sharing an insight into the reading experiences of you and your sons. The different ways in which each of you came to reading shows the importance of providing children with a range of strategies, rather than just one.

    Thank you, Robin. I’m pleased you enjoyed the post. It’s great to have your confirmation of the strategies too. 🙂

    Wow! I’ve always thought that reading is a combination of magic and miracle. And as I read your post here, that theory is expounded and expanded. ???? Comprehending symbols and turning those symbols into full thoughts and stories IS miraculous as well as a kind of reading science. I LOVE the way you show the science here. It also explains the importance of illustrations in children’s books.

    Thank you, Pam. I’m pleased you found the post both interesting and helpful. “The magic and miracle of reading” – what a great title for a book.

    Wow, brilliant post Norah. Indeed prior knowledge of the subject does help us read and easy to see how overwhelming it can be for a new reader with no prior knowledge on the topic they’re reading about. P.S. is Robert Colvin your husband? 🙂

    Thank you so much for your support, Debby. I’m pleased the post made sense. P.S. Robert is my son. 🙂

    When helping my dyslexic niece read, I found her glancing at other text on the page to help her decipher the word she was having difficulty with. If I directed her to an illustration, she immediately comprehended. If the adults in a child’s life not only encourage reading, but also engage the child in discussing what they’ve read, children broaden their knowledge base and learn to extrapolate. This post is an excellent exercise in reading comprehension, Norah ❤️

    Thank you for adding your observations to the post, Tina. It’s interesting to see that you have used similar helpful strategies with your niece. You have provided wise advice in your comment:”If the adults in a child’s life not only encourage reading, but also engage the child in discussing what they’ve read, children broaden their knowledge base and learn to extrapolate.” I appreciate your support.

    What a brilliant way of illustrating the complexity of reading task. It reminds me of figuring out signposts in the Cyrillic alphabet once on holiday. The context then was through familiarity with a limited number of place names and working it out from that.

    Thank you for your lovely comment, Anne. I’m pleased to hear you had some understanding of the complexity of the process prior to reading the post. Sounds like you did a good job of working out those signposts.

    Complex indeed! Thank you Norah, will pass this on. Comprehension is so vital as opposed to learning by rote. Funnily enough I was reading “The Invention of Wings” a bit earlier this morning and the young lass was teaching her friends to sing the alphabet which got me thinking about the written word and how it gets impressed upon the young learner. Have a lovely weekend.

    Hi Susan, Thank you for reading and commenting, and for sharing the post. I wasn’t aware of “The Invention of Wings” but it sounds like an interesting novel. I must add it to my ever-growing never-decreasing list. 🙂 It’s interesting how similar information or ideas seems to pop up in different places concurrently. Enjoy your weekend too!

Please share your thoughts. I love it when you do.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: