The importance of teaching foundational reading skills
Discover how foundational reading skills lay the groundwork for a lifetime of literacy success. Learn from 95 Percent Group's literacy experts.
Multidisciplinary research has confirmed that 95% or more of students can learn to read when provided with high quality, evidence-aligned instruction. Yet, too many students today are not learning to read. The most recent Nation’s Report Card found 65% of 4th graders reading at or below basic levels. And according to EAB’s 2020 “Leading for Literacy,” 60% of elementary teachers have not been fully trained in strategies for teaching the foundational reading skills—phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.
We know that students with the lowest levels of literacy face school challenges that will compound into lifelong challenges if we don’t get this right. Effective instruction holds the key to equitable opportunities for all of our nation’s children.
The Five Essential Components of Effective Reading Instruction
Our current understanding of foundational reading skills goes back to 1997 when Congress asked the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to work with the DOE to create a National Reading Panel to evaluate the research and science-based best practices for teaching reading to children.
The result—The National Reading Panel Report (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD], 2000)—summarized several decades of scientific research and concluded that effective reading instruction addresses five critical areas—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. The panel determined that systematic and explicit instruction is the most effective approach to teaching these five essential skills.
What is Systematic and Explicit instruction?
Brain researchers have identified areas and networks of the brain involved in processing print, speech sounds, language, and meaning. Since neural connections required for reading do not exist between these areas in the pre-literate brain, efficient pathways are built with explicit instruction and deliberate practice. This instruction has a significant influence on building these networks, over and above immersion and instruction that is not explicit.
From the Science of Reading—Defining Guide
According to the report, A Closer Look at the Five Essential Components of Effective Reading Instruction: A Review of Scientifically Based Reading Research for Teachers, systematic instruction reflects several important characteristics:
- Skills and concepts are taught in a planned, logically progressive sequence.
- Lessons focus on clearly defined objectives that are stated in terms of what students will do.
- Multiple practice activities are scheduled purposefully to help students master and retain new skills.
- Students work on carefully designed tasks that give them opportunities to apply what they have been taught.
- Assessments are designed and used in a timely fashion to monitor skill acquisition as well as students’ ability to apply new skills, to retain them over time, and to use them independently.
Explicit reading instruction means:
- The teacher states clearly what is being taught and models effectively how it is used by a skilled reader.
- Instruction draws students’ attention to important features of an example or demonstration.
Read more about the importance of providing explicit, direct instruction: Get students reading at grade level
For more extensive background on foundational skills, read: How Children Learn to Read: Toward Evidence Aligned Lesson Planning (World Bank Group, 2022)
For guidance with implementation, read: Science of Reading 2.0: Implementation Made Easy
The Critical Role of Phonemic Awareness
Phonemic awareness is understanding that words are made up of speech sounds or phonemes, the smallest parts of sound in a spoken word. The ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words, and understand their relationship to letters is a fundamental step towards mastering reading. Phonemes are represented in the written language by graphemes. Graphemes can be individual letters or groups of letters that represent single sounds. Reading research has shown that underdeveloped phoneme awareness is consistently associated with poor reading and spelling (Fletcher, Lyon, Fuchs, & Barnes, 2019).
The report, A Closer Look, makes this key point about phonemes:
Think of phonemes not as “the sounds that letters make” but as the sounds of speech that can be represented by letters.
This set of definitions from the guide How Children Learn to Read (World Bank Group, 2022) will help you understand the relationship of phonemic awareness to the easily-confused terms—phonological processing and phonological awareness.
- Phonemic awareness: Conscious awareness that words are made up of segments of our own speech that are represented with letters in an alphabetic writing system
- Phonological awareness: Conscious awareness of all levels of the speech sound system, including word boundaries, stress patterns, syllables, parts of syllables, and phonemes
- Phonological processing: Many aspects of speech and language perception and production, such as perceiving, interpreting, storing (remembering), recalling or retrieving, and generating the speech sound system of a language.
Think of these as a nested set of concepts—with phonemic awareness nested within phonological awareness, and phonological awareness nested in the broader term, phonological processing.
Phonemic Awareness Activities
Mastering phonemic awareness skills provides a strong base for all the other foundational skills. Phonemic awareness tasks include:
- Isolating phonemes
- Blending onset-rimes
- Blending phonemes
- Deleting phonemes
- Segmenting words into phonemes
- Adding phonemes
- Substituting phonemes
95 Percent Group products to support evidence-aligned phonemic awareness instruction
95 Phonemic Awareness Suite – A new, comprehensive phonemic awareness solution that includes Tier 1 instruction, assessment, differentiated Tier 2 instruction, and professional learning—all aligned to provide a consistent instructional dialogue for your teachers and students. Aligned with the latest research on phonemic awareness, it’s everything necessary to build critical foundational skills and set your students up for reading success!
The Suite includes:
95 Phonemic Awareness Screener for Intervention™ (PASI™): Measuring a child’s phonemic awareness skills is critical to understanding how they hear and manipulate sounds of spoken language, which form the basis of their future reading skills. Identify skill deficits and personalize instruction for each child with PASI™.
95 Pocket Phonemic Awareness™: 50 weeks of lessons, each 10 minutes per day (K-1). Read more in our Q&A.
95 Phonemic Awareness Intervention Resource™: Lessons cover alphabetic and phonemic awareness, with Kid Lips instruction built-in
Nurturing Phonics Skills
In phonics, we move from a focus on the spoken language and speech sounds in phonemic awareness, to a focus on the written language. Students study the relationship between letters and letter sequences, and the sounds they represent. Science of reading experts agree that the most effective way to teach reading includes systematic, explicit instruction in phonics and decoding (Brady, 2020; Castles, Rastle, & Nation, 2018; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000).
Although differences exist, the hallmark of systematic phonics programs is that they delineate a planned, sequential set of phonic elements, and they teach these elements explicitly and systematically.
(NICHD, 2000, p. 2-99)
The National Reading Panel Report (NICHD, 2000) offers these benefits of systematic phonics instruction:
- Systematic phonics instruction was shown to produce substantial improvement in reading and spelling in kindergarten through sixth grade, especially for younger children who were at risk of future reading failure and disabled readers. The contribution of systematic phonics instruction to reading achievement was greater than that of programs that provided unsystematic phonics instruction and programs that included no phonics instruction.
- Positive results were greater with younger students (kindergarten students and first graders), indicating that beginning systematic phonics instruction early is helpful.
Phonics skills: strategies for teachers
The research highlights two principles of phonics instruction for teachers:
- Phonics instruction should be explicit and systematic, teaching a predetermined sequence of letter-sound relationships. Explain clearly and directly that certain letters or letter combinations represent certain sounds. (“The sound /d/ is spelled with the letter d.”)
- Keep the end goal of phonics instruction in view—reading connected text with proficiency.
Additional resources on phonics skills
What is a Phonics Ecosystem & Why Does it Matter? – Watch this engaging 95 Percent Group webinar. Guest speakers from Wicomico County Public Schools in Maryland share their literacy success story.
Multisensory games to master phonics patterns – The benefit of using manipulatives to master phonics patterns has long been established, especially with struggling readers. Research supports the use of multisensory instructional techniques to engage students, and improve their performance.
Teaching advanced phonics and multisyllable routines – Multisyllable Routine Cards are designed for students in third grade and above as a fast-track approach to help students who are stumbling on multisyllable words. These time-efficient routines utilize explicit and direct phonics instruction to help students who could improve their skills in decoding longer words.
Effective phonics intervention lesson plan – Trying to teach a variety of phonics skills, at the same time, can be overwhelming—but the key to effective intervention instruction is planning. This brief post will provide some suggestions to help you plan.
95 Percent Group products to support evidence-aligned phonics instruction
95 Phonics Core Program®: Classroom-ready, evidence-based phonics instruction for your literacy block. In 30 minutes a day, 95 PCP builds critical phonics skills through explicit instruction to develop strong readers, K-5.
95 Phonics Core Program® Word Study, Grades 4 and 5: Grounded in the science of reading, 95 Phonics Core Program Word Study, Grades 4 and 5 is a 30-week curriculum designed for daily 30-minute instruction. It contains easy-to-follow instructional dialogue to support teacher-directed phonics instruction.
95 Phonics Screener for Intervention™ (PSI™) – Assessing where readers are struggling with their phonics and decoding skills is essential to mapping each child’s path to word fluency. Use PSI™ to pinpoint skill deficits and determine exactly where instruction should begin.
Building Reading Fluency
Put simply, fluency is the skill that enables students to read a text accurately, quickly, and with expression. Without strong fluency skills, students will be challenged to comprehend what they read, especially as they move through the grades and expand the subjects of study.
Here is an excellent expanded definition from A Closer Look:
Years ago, fluency was understood to mean rapid word recognition that freed up space in the reader’s working memory for use in comprehending the message of the text. That is, fluent readers need to put less effort into word recognition and therefore have more available for comprehension. Later studies of fluency (Rasinski, 1990; Hooks & Jones, 2002) expanded this understanding by clarifying that fluency can also involve grouping words within a sentence into phrases that make what is read easier to comprehend. Grouping words into meaningful phrases and reading with expression helps the reader understand the text by making what is being read resemble natural speech. Therefore, we now understand that fluency is recognizing the words in a text rapidly and accurately and using phrasing and emphasis in a way that makes what is read sound like spoken language.
—A Closer Look report
Reading Fluency Strategies
The NICHD research review confirmed that repeated reading and guided repeated oral reading show strong evidence of improving fluency.
Additional strategies to improve fluency include:
- Telling students unfamiliar words as they encounter them so they can focus on constructing meaning and reading with fluency (Shany & Biemiller, 1995).
- Helping students group words in a sentence into meaningful phrases (Taylor, Wade, & Yekovich, 1985).
Fluency at the word level precedes passage fluency. It’s essential to monitor student fluency so you can assess progress on a daily basis. With frequent timely assessment, teachers can effectively guide and redirect instruction when necessary.
Additional Fluency Resources
You’ll find fluency intervention activities and resources here:
Direct vocabulary instruction is more than just definitions. More than 70% of struggling readers have trouble with accurate and fluent word recognition. Students with limited vocabulary will struggle with reading fluency and comprehension. For students to close the vocabulary gap they need vocabulary instruction that both teaches the meaning of well-chosen words and shows them how to learn words on their own.
Based on its extensive review of research, the National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2000) made these recommendations for vocabulary.
- Vocabulary should be taught directly even though a great deal of vocabulary is learned indirectly.
- Repeated exposure to new vocabulary is important.
- New words are learned more effectively in a rich context.
- Restructuring vocabulary tasks can help students learn new vocabulary.
- Active engagement with vocabulary improves learning.
Tips for Expanding Vocabulary
The World Bank report How Children Learn to Read, produced by Louisa Moats, EdD, suggests these research-informed vocabulary practices:
Students need to review irregular words continually. Irregular words should be introduced gradually, one or two per week, with continual ongoing review. Repeated exposure to these words may be necessary for some students to learn them, but, paradoxically, the more students learn the regular patterns, the easier it will be for them to remember the less predictable words. All words are processed as representations of language, not as arbitrary visual strings of letters (Miles & Ehri, 2019; Seidenberg, 2017), so the same guidance holds: call attention to sounds, map the sounds to the letters, explain why the word is spelled the way it is (if known), and use the word in speaking and writing.
95 Percent Group products to support vocabulary
95 Vocabulary Surge™: Level A and Level B: Essential vocabulary instruction for teachers of language arts, science, and social studies in Grades 2-8
Reading comprehension is the sense-making skill—comprehension instruction ensures students can make sense of what they read, draw correct inferences, and connect what they’ve read to what they already know. As comprehension skills deepen, students go beyond just a surface understanding of what they read. The end goal of comprehension instruction is to nurture independent, proficient, and critical readers (and thinkers).
Comprehension instruction should equip students with a range of strategies to help them understand what they are reading across different types of text and subject areas, and help them appreciate that comprehension requires more effort than ability.
Effective comprehension instruction includes explicit teaching of word meanings important for understanding a given text, as well as practice of higher-level thinking skills such as making inferences, monitoring whether reading is making sense, and knowledge and use of text structure to extract meanings.
—from How Children Learn to Read
How to Improve Comprehension
Here are seven strategies to improve comprehension:
- Maintain a balance between the teacher talking and the students talking. Students need to practice producing language, not just listening to it.
- Mix up choral responses (where the whole class responds in unison) with individual responses. If students hesitate or won’t/can’t respond, give them the words and ask them to repeat.
- Include memorization and recitation of poems, rhymes, prayers (if allowed), and songs in the daily routines.
- Pair students up and ask them to tell each other a response to a question or to share an idea about something they have learned. This is called, “Think, Pair, Share.”
- When reading aloud or reading together, pause frequently and ask students to a) tell what is happening, b) predict what might happen, c) explain what something means, or d) ask questions about the text.
- Even when the emphasis is on decoding and word reading, make sure the meanings of most “little words” are known or talked about. Introduce the meanings of words that will be read and include a meaning-focused task in the phonics lesson.
- Build background knowledge of a topic being read about or discussed, and if possible, include more than one reading or learning experience focused on that topic. Comprehension is better when students already know something about the topic they are reading about.
(Source: How Children Learn to Read)
Additional Comprehension Resources
How will we measure success? We need to assess and monitor.
95 Percent Group products to support comprehension
95 Comprehension, Grades 3-6 is designed for use in teaching Tier 2 small groups who have been identified as struggling to comprehend even though their decoding skills are strong.
7 comprehension processes are taught in the following sequence:
- Determining Importance
Each strategy is practiced with both fiction and nonfiction text using three sets of spiral lessons showing students how to integrate the processes together. Explicit modeling and the use of the “I Do, We Do, You Do” instructional strategy is used throughout the lessons. Comprehension, Grades 3-6 includes a Teacher’s Guide and Manipulatives Kit.
An Ecosystem Approach to Foundational Reading Skills
An ecosystem approach to foundational reading skills ensures that both teachers and students share a common language and routines. The One95™ Literacy Ecosystem includes professional learning, assessment, and instructional resources so that teachers can turn the science of reading theory into practice and help each child make progress. It makes the experience across products and tiers of instruction as seamless as possible for students and teachers—all products and tiers share a common language—they all use the same routines, procedures, and descriptions.
Principal Robert Palazzo sums up the effect of such a holistic and cohesive system:
“95 Percent Group has allowed for a common language. For example, everyone knows that skill 6 is regular vowel teams—whether you’re doing the 95 Phonics Screener for Intervention™ (PSI™), the 95 Phonics Lesson Library™, or the 95 Phonics Chip Kits™—we are able to clearly speak about a student’s skill level and what they need and intervene at a high level.”
Once both teacher and students know the routines, students can really concentrate on the learning and the teacher can concentrate on the students’ responses and make those important next-step decisions.
One95™ Literacy Ecosystem
Engaging and evidence-based, the One95™ Literacy Ecosystem equips educators with a comprehensive toolkit to unlock the power of literacy for every child. Based on the science of reading and backed by nearly two decades of research, the One95 Literacy Ecosystem is proven to advance reading skills in students from diverse backgrounds, grades, and abilities.
The One95 Literacy Ecosystem features:
- Solutions for every tier, grade, and student literacy need
- Instruction aligned with MTSS/RTI frameworks
- Research and insights on the science of reading
- Courses, workshops, and more for professional development
- Access to literacy experts
Real-Life Foundational Reading Success Stories
Read our district spotlight about Fulton County in the Atlanta metro area. It’s the fourth largest school district in Georgia. Recognizing that they were leaving too many students behind, they put the 95 Phonics Core Program® in every K-3 classroom in the district. They followed that with other resources in the One95 literacy ecosystem including 95 Vocabulary Surge–Unleashing the Power of Word Parts™. The results? Transformational growth at all grade levels.
Explore more 95 Percent Group success stories here.
How 95 Percent Group Can Help With Foundational Reading Skills
95 Percent Group brings over two decades of thought leadership in the science of reading and evidence-aligned assessment and instruction in the five foundational skills of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. We have worked with school districts and educators across the country to unlock the power of literacy for every child. We look forward to sharing with you what we’ve learned, along with best practices and resources you can bring to the classroom. Make sure to explore our many opportunities for professional learning.
Our literacy experts are here to help. Contact our team to learn how the One95 Literacy Ecosystem can transform your reading instruction.