Reading & Literacy Opinion

There Are Four Foundational Reading Skills. Why Do We Only Talk About Phonics?

We must teach the integrated set of foundational skills completely
By Heidi Anne E. Mesmer — January 23, 2020 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Here’s the good news: Most educators have gotten the message that K-5 students need to learn the foundational reading skills outlined in the common core and other college and career-ready standards: print concepts, phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, and fluency. The bad news? The foundational skills instruction that students receive is too often incomplete and ineffective. Districts are “checking” the foundational skills box but are using practices of questionable quality and not addressing all of the foundational skills. It’s not enough to just do foundational skills. They must be taught completely—yet efficiently—with quality materials to build capacity for comprehending lengthy, advanced literary, and informational texts.

Literacy is livelihood. If you can’t read words, many aspects of your life will be impacted. Take this question on a cosmetology licensing exam: “Which of the following refers to the deepest layer of epidermis—stratum spinosum, stratum granulosum, stratum germinativum, stratum lucidum?” It requires understanding complex Latin vocabulary as well as decoding multisyllabic words.

That’s why foundational reading skills must work together—it is the integration of the skills that provide an entry point to complex literacy. As students increase in their abilities to automatically recognize words, they also increase in the amounts of mental energy they can devote to understanding complex ideas and vocabulary. No one can concentrate on Newton’s laws, plot development, or electrical circuits if they are struggling to decode every fifth word.

A common misconception is that “foundational skills” only means “phonics.” The truth is that the four areas are an integrated gestalt, greater than the sum of their parts. Often emphasized in K-2, phonics is teaching students the correspondence between visual symbols (graphemes made of letters) and speech sounds (phonemes). But to access phonics, children must have certain insights, or the system will make no sense.

Students often learn letters but don’t know, for example, that print runs left-to-right or that words are groups of letters separated by space—insights called print concepts. Similarly, students learn letter names but do not understand the alphabetic principle—that symbols represent speech sounds (“cat” equals 3 symbols, 3 sounds). Kindergarteners learn the alphabetic principle and print concepts when their teachers model reading and writing. We are putting the cart before the horse if we drill letter/sounds without also teaching print concepts and the alphabetic principle.

That's why foundational reading skills must work together—it is the integration of the skills that provide an entry point to complex literacy.

Some educators think phonological awareness is synonymous with phonics, but this is another misconception. In fact, when I recently observed foundational skills lessons in more than 10 K-2 classrooms, I only saw one phonological awareness lesson. Phonological awareness is the ability to orally identify and manipulate the sound units of language such as words, syllables, and speech. Research tells us that if students do not consciously attend to and distinguish these units, they are unlikely to benefit from phonics. Similarly, instruction in print concepts primes students to learn phonics. Can you imagine going to a job where you learn all about the different types of buttons, threads, fabrics, and zippers but no one tells you that you are manufacturing jeans? Yet that’s often how reading instruction can feel for children.

Phonics and word recognition skills include analyzing multisyllabic words into morphemes, the smallest meaning units (e.g., pre-treat-ing). Many schools stop instruction after students can decode single syllable words, but multisyllabic words outnumber single syllable words 4-to-1 in advanced texts. To complete foundational skills instruction, we need systematic instruction in morphology through the 5th grade and beyond.

The last foundational skill, fluency, closes the deal. It is the ability to read connected text automatically (with little conscious effort), accurately, and with proper expression using volume, phrasing, smoothness, and pace to convey the meaning. Addressed in 1st through 5th grade, fluency enhances—and is affected by—meaning making. Without requisite fluency, students will have little cognitive energy to devote to complex ideas.

It can be exhausting to hear about research-based this and research-based that—but there are well-established findings regarding foundational skills instruction. Simply put: Foundational skills cannot be separated. Print concepts and phonological awareness support phonics instruction, morphological instruction extends students’ word recognition, and fluency automatizes word reading. Here are truths educators should focus on:

1. Systematic instruction is effective. It is driven by a scope and sequence, a guide specifying the content to be taught and its order. Let one scope and sequence drive instruction. I often see districts using two to three foundational skills plans, an overkill approach that is bound to confuse students.

2. Students need to learn all the foundational skills. I see approaches that heavily emphasize just one or two skills, such as phonics, but completely miss others. These skills are complementary and need to be consistently taught, in response to development, through grade 5.

3. Instructional language should be explicit. Teachers should clearly and directly tell students the grapheme/phoneme relationships, word roots, or syllable patterns being taught. I recently tested more than 150 kindergarteners who knew about 90 percent of their letter/sounds but could not decode simple words. Most young children must be taught explicitly how to decode words.

4. Solid foundational skills instruction is assessment-guided and responsive. All students do not need the same thing. In a 2014 study, one researcher found that entering kindergarteners ranged from knowing zero letter names to knowing all of them. Teachers must use simple diagnostic assessments that inform cumulative review and instruction and often must use small group instruction.

5. Instructional materials must be aligned to the standards. A recent analysis from the RAND Corporation found thatonly 7 percent of elementary school teachers used at least one high-quality English/language arts material. Thoroughly vet materials to ensure full coverage of all foundational skills. EdReports.org provides a rigorously developed tool that give leaders a road map. (I recently sat on an advisory panel for the organization’s inaugural review of Foundational Skills curriculum.) With focused planning even small or underresourced districts can find research-based, standards-aligned materials.

Moreover, all four foundational skills deserve our full attention as they provide an entry point to complex literacy. Decisionmakers must fully understand what the foundational skills are and apply the robust research that informs best practices. These foundational reading skills are truly foundational—an essential ingredient but not the full recipe. Comprehension and writing instruction, which requires a wide range of instructional targets such as vocabulary and world knowledge, the focus of the other standards, round out the complete recipe. Millions of students are looking to their schools to provide them with the essential knowledge they need to succeed in college and career—it is imperative that we get these skills right.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 2020 edition of Education Week as Phonics Is Just One Part of a Whole


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Pave the Path to Excellence in Math
Empower your students' math journey with Sue O'Connell, author of “Math in Practice” and “Navigating Numeracy.”
Content provided by hand2mind
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Combatting Teacher Shortages: Strategies for Classroom Balance and Learning Success
Learn from leaders in education as they share insights and strategies to support teachers and students.
Content provided by DreamBox Learning
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Reading Instruction and AI: New Strategies for the Big Education Challenges of Our Time
Join the conversation as experts in the field explore these instructional pain points and offer game-changing guidance for K-12 leaders and educators.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Reading & Literacy Opinion Tired of the Reading Wars? Become a Conscientious Objector
Teachers' obligation is to their students. The research combined with the knowledge of individual students should be the guide.
14 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Reading & Literacy 'I Literally Cried': Teachers Describe Their Transition to Science-Based Reading Instruction
Teachers describe their journeys as they navigated the changing landscape of literacy instruction.
6 min read
First grade teacher Tammy Satterfield of Mountain View Elementary uses her fingers to break up a word into its separate sounds with phoneme segmentation.
First grade teacher Tammy Satterfield of Mountain View Elementary uses her fingers to segment phonemes—or break up a word into its separate sounds.
Kitty Clark Fritz for Education Week-File
Reading & Literacy Opinion Don’t Worry About 'Book Bans'
So-called “book bans” are a lot rarer—and more reasonable—than you might think, argue Max Eden and Jay P. Greene.
Max Eden & Jay P. Greene
5 min read
Tidy vector hand drawn background with Books, Vintage cozy elements, printed publications, volumes of literature, retro library flying objects, decor textile, wrapping paper, wallpaper,  textured pattern
Olga Kurbatova/iStock
Reading & Literacy Opinion Teachers, You Don't Need to Choose Sides in the Reading Wars
Instead of arguing over who's right, let's focus attention on expanding knowledge about unresolved instructional issues.
12 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."