The Skills That Make a Strong Reader

As a parent, you know how important reading is. We all want our kids to be strong, successful readers who love books. So, what does skilled reading look like?

When skilled readers open up a new book, they jump into reading with confidence and a sense of curiosity. They move through the text easily and at a good pace. They get absorbed in the story, connect it to their own lives, and look at reading as a source of pleasure.

Strong readers approach academic reading assignments with the same sense of purpose, actively tracking ideas and making sure they learn important information.

How do children become this kind of reader? Read on to learn about the core skills and strategies that all children need to become skilled, confident readers.

Early Literacy Skills

Children learn important literacy skills long before they start school, all by exploring books, having fun with language, and listening to stories read aloud. Early literacy skills are the building blocks for learning to read successfully.

  • Print Awareness: Young children need to learn some basic things about how books work. For example, the marks on the page represent spoken words, and the words are read from left to right, and top to bottom.
  • Letter Knowledge: Learning the letters of the alphabet is a core skill for young kids getting ready to read. This means learning the names of letters and being able to recognize their shapes, usually beginning with the letters of their own name.
  • Phonemic Awareness: Before kids can learn to read, they need to understand how the sounds in spoken language work. This includes the ability to identify individual letter sounds and hear each sound that makes up a word. For instance, the word top begins with the sound /t/. (A letter between two slashes indicates the letter sound.)

These skills are strong predictors of success in learning to read. Kids who develop them have a big advantage, and they start school feeling confident and excited about books and reading.


Phonics is at the heart of early reading instruction. Children learn to use phonics skills to match letters to their sounds in order to sound out, or decode, words. For example, the letter b stands for the sound /b/. Your child can blend these sounds together — /b/ /ă/ /t/ — and read the word bat.

Phonics is best taught systematically. Children start with the easiest elements in kindergarten, and by the end of the year they can read simple words like cat. In first grade, phonics is a major focus. Children learn to read words with long vowel sounds like rope, and words with vowel combinations like trail. In second grade, phonics instruction wraps up with some more advanced skills, along with strategies for reading longer words.

Learning phonics has a powerful impact—it gives children the tools they need to read the majority of words they encounter.

Sight Words

Learning sight words goes hand-in-hand with phonics. Sight words are the most common words your child will encounter while reading—words like was, that, and said. These words make up a significant percentage of the words in books for beginning readers, so being able to recognize them automatically by sight makes learning to read much easier. Children learn to read sight words as whole words, rather than sounding them out using phonics. In fact, many sight words have irregular spellings and can’t be sounded out (for example, you can’t use phonics to sound out the word of).

Once children begin to master decoding skills and build a strong sight vocabulary, their reading really starts to pick up steam. They can handle most of the decodable words they run into, and they can recognize the rest by sight. Now a big reading milestone is around the corner: fluency.


Fluent reading sounds smooth and natural, the way people sound when they talk. Fluent readers read words instantly and accurately, at a good pace, and their reading is expressive.

In order to achieve fluency, children need to master basic decoding skills. For most kids, this happens by the end of second grade or the beginning of third grade. Once they no longer need to sound out each word, reading gets smoother and quicker. The biggest way that children build fluency is by doing lots of reading.

Achieving fluency has a tremendous impact on young readers. For one, fluency is the bridge to good comprehension. Since fluent readers don’t have to work at decoding words, they’re free to pay attention to meaning. Plus, when reading feels easy and natural, and kids understand what they’re reading, it’s fun. Fluency is the gateway to a love of reading.


Comprehension is the ability to understand what you read. It’s the reason we read—to get meaning from the words on the page. The best way to think about this is to look at what children with good comprehension do when they read. Good readers actively engage with the story and identify with the characters. They visualize what is happening, follow the events of the story and anticipate what will happen next. A good reader is able to explore the meaning of a story and connect it to his or her own life.

How do children build comprehension? They need a foundation of solid decoding skills and fluency, and a strong vocabulary. Above all, though, children need to do a lot of reading to build comprehension.

Strong comprehension gives kids a big academic boost in all subjects. There are big personal rewards, too—children who read with good comprehension really enjoy it, and the more they enjoy it the more they want to read. This is how kids become readers!


Having a strong vocabulary plays a key role in children’s success as readers. In order to have strong comprehension, kids need to understand the meaning of the words they read.

Children learn vocabulary in a variety of ways. They learn some words through direct instruction. This method is effective but limited, since there simply isn’t enough time to teach a significant number of words this way. It’s also helpful for students to learn strategies for dealing with unknown words, such as using context clues or analyzing the meanings of word parts like root words, prefixes, and suffixes.

The very best way for children to build their vocabulary, though, is simple: by reading a lot of books. Children encounter so many new words this way, and they get the chance to see the words often enough to really learn them. This is one of the reasons it’s so important for children to read widely and read often.

Students who read a lot and develop a large vocabulary have a big advantage in school, from stronger reading comprehension to better grades on standardized tests. There are personal advantages, too. Words are how we interact with the world around us, so having a large vocabulary really expands kids’ horizons. It allows them to read and enjoy a richer variety of books, and express themselves clearly in writing and in everyday life.

Strategies for Reading Nonfiction

From kindergarten through high school, kids read a whole range of nonfiction, including books and textbooks, newspaper and magazine articles, and literary essays, biographies and memoirs.

Around 3rd or 4th grade, children make the important transition from learning to read to reading to learn—they use their reading skills to learn new information and ideas. At this point students begin to develop critical thinking skills and take a different kind of approach to reading—one that’s active and analytical. They learn to identify key concepts and recognize how text is organized so they can follow the development of ideas and keep track of important information. They learn to monitor their own comprehension, so they can fix any gaps in their understanding. They summarize what they’ve read in order to cement it in their memory.

Mastering these strategies and becoming a strong, active reader of nonfiction is at the core of children’s academic success. It also helps kids get the most enjoyment out of nonfiction, and see nonfiction reading as a way to fuel their curiosity and learn about the things they’re most passionate about.

The Big Payoff – A Love of Reading

Strong reading skills really pay off. By mastering core skills and strategies, your child will have a big advantage when it comes to school. You’ll see it in your child’s confidence and positive attitude about learning, and in his or her grades and test scores.

The benefits don’t stop there, though. Children who have strong reading skills develop a lifelong love of reading. How does this happen? When reading feels easy, it’s enjoyable. The more your child enjoys reading, the more he or she will want to do it. Before you know it, your child is in a positive cycle that instills the habit of reading for pleasure and deepens your child’s love of reading.

Children who love to read get to feel the joy of being lost in a good book—they feel like they’re inside the story, experiencing the adventures right along with the characters. This is a deeply rewarding experience, and it can actually be life-changing! Reading expands children’s horizons and shapes the way they see the world. It gives children a deeper understanding of other people, and of themselves. Being a reader will become an important part of who your child is, and having strong skills and a love of reading will enrich your child’s life now and long into the future.

Give your child the core literacy skills and strategies that will make them a strong and happy reader.

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