Colin Harrison of Nottingham University, who has done work for the Scottish Office, says word recognition requires grammatical knowledge not just of the formal rules but of the internalised awareness that enables a child of two-and-a-half to say "I goed".
Frameworks of reference and schemes of thinking are also important in developing reading, Professor Harrison told the annual meeting of the Scottish Association for the Teaching of English in Glasgow on Saturday.
"If I told you that pink was behind black and white was on the floor, some of you might think I was talking about colours. The more culturally aware among you would realise I was referring to snooker and that 'white' was Jimmy White."
Professor Harrison also stressed the importance of regular reading. "Crummy spellers and unconfident readers" were often good readers at the end of primary 1, he said, but could run into trouble later if they played only computer games or read just when they were forced to. "You need to read to be able to read, it has been said, and I would add that you also need to read to be able to write or to spell."
Professor Harrison strongly recommended the use of DARTs (directed activities related to texts). These allow pupils "to become active in constructing meaning" by taking passages apart, reconstructing them, analysing the content, filling in words or phrases that have been removed, constructing arguments using the text and predicting what might happen next.
"Modelling reading processes" in such a way is best done when pupils do it themselves in groups or pairs.
But he warned teachers not to go "trampelling over every work of literature by subjecting it to a DART". His research showed that pupils spent 65 per cent of their time in reading comprehension exercises on writing and only 4 per cent on reading. "DARTs, on the other hand, is about reading. It is about offering students a bridge from starting a text to the end point where you want the class to take a position on it."
Professor Harrison defended the scheme against critics who have dismissed it as a utilitarian exercise designed purely to promote reading for information. "It can be, but it is essentially about reading."
He said: "The weakest child in any school, other than those with neural problems, has more powerful language comprehension and recognition than any computer."
Professor Harrison has been acting as an adviser to the Scottish Office on the production of a CD-Rom for primary schools on the teaching of reading. It will be "a world first", he believes.