Reading Is Hard - Understanding the Bases of Literacy

Reading Is Hard - Understanding the Bases of Literacy.png

Reading is a complex process that our brain was not designed to do. While there are specific areas in the brain in charge of motor planning and speech, there are no specific areas in the brain that are designed for reading. This means that several areas in the brain must work together in order to accomplish this task.

In order to read efficiently the brain must create a neural pathway from several distinct areas in the brain in less than half of a second. The brain must hear the sounds of a word, associate the meaning of that word, and recognize or produce the symbol of the word (pictorial representation of each letter). This is NOT EASY!

A break down in any of these areas formally known as semantics (meaning), phonology (sounds), or orthography (visual letters) can cause difficulty in reading. Therefore, solid reading intervention needs to be able to address potential breakdowns in any one of these areas and needs to systematically build all of these skills.

Literacy Processing Triangle.png

What do we do about it?

Using the Literacy Processing Triangle along with the Five Essential Components of Reading identified by the National Reading Panel, intervention programs should target:

  1. Phonological Awareness (Identifying how words break into sounds)

  2. Phonics (Pairing Letter Sounds with the symbol of the Letters)

  3. Vocabulary Instruction

  4. Reading Fluency

  5. Comprehension

For students with dyslexia, it's important that we put these skills together in a systematic and cumulative progression. So that the skills are building from the easiest skills to the most complex skills and always building on itself. Much like the way we teach adding before we teach subtracting and we teach multiplying before dividing. These skills require foundational knowledge before we can jump in.

Effective Reading Instruction for Struggling or Dyslexic Readers Targets

Phonological Awareness

The identification and manipulation of individual sounds that make up words. This correlates to the phonology base of our triangle. Click here to read more about Phonological Awareness.


The ability to break words into syllables in order to predict the vowel sound of each syllable and break words into decodable chunks. This correlates to our phonology base of our triangle.

Sound Symbol Knowledge

The ability to pair the sound with the pictorial letter. This correlates to the line connecting phonology and orthography on our triangle.


The ability to recognize affixes (prefix and suffix patterns) and root patterns that convey meaning. This correlates to the line connecting orthography and semantics on our triangle.

Reading Fluency

The ability to improve rapid recognition at the sound, word, sentence, and passage level. This correlates to the entire perimeter of the triangle connecting as quickly as possible. This is IMPORTANT, remember that it's the ENTIRE perimeter of the triangle - connecting sounds to symbols to meaning. To often we focus on reading fluency only connecting sounds to symbols measuring only things like Correct Words Per Minute. Click here to read our blog about Correct Words Per Minute.


The ability to put together a grammatically correct sentence. This correlates to the line connecting orthography and semantics on our triangle.


The ability to tie meaning and understanding to a word, sentence, or passage. This correlates to the semantics base of our triangle.

So what we see if that all of these components of effective reading instruction come back to understanding the triangle of literacy processes or the three bases of literacy. Effective reading instruction has to teach specific skills to create the bases or foundations of the triangle but also must include skills that connect the bases to each other.

Corey Pollard